Leaving behind a legacy of excellence

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By Brad Whipple, Daily Sports Writer
Published October 31, 2013

When the No. 8 Michigan women’s soccer team (8-1-1 Big Ten, 14-2-1 overall) hosts its final regular-season game Saturday, it’ll celebrate senior night by recognizing seven distinguished players. As with any athlete, it is hard to step onto the home field one last time. But what may make it even tougher for the Wolverines’ seniors will be the possibility of letting the Big Ten title fall from their grasp. With a win over Ohio State (4-4-2, 10-5-3) Saturday and a loss by Nebraska to Indiana, Michigan would clinch its first-ever Big Ten title.

“I can’t remember a senior class that has had such great and consistent performances throughout a season,” said Michigan coach Greg Ryan. “I feel great pride in seeing them grow up as people, seeing them do well in the classroom and then seeing them excel and take Michigan soccer to new heights.”

When Ryan was introduced to his new unit of freshmen three years ago, little did he know that this group of players would transform Michigan’s program. From when they first took the field, he realized the special talent and unique dexterity his freshmen would bring. Looking back, Ryan has no doubts that they were some of the best players on that 2010 team.

While they may have an innate skill for the game, the current seniors learned a lot of what they know from those who came before. Former Wolverines Haley Kopmeyer and Clare Stachel played a crucial role in teaching them the necessary tools to help them on and off the field.

“Haley and Clare really taught this group of seniors the traditions of Michigan,” Ryan said. “They showed why you want to be the very best you can be in every aspect of being a Michigan student-athlete.”

Added senior midfielder Meghan Toohey: “They embraced us as teammates and pushed us when we needed it. They definitely showed me what type of teammate I wanted to be as a senior. One thing I care about the most is to leave that kind of legacy behind.”

Instilling Michigan’s tradition did not end with Kopmeyer and Stachel’s departure from the program. Toohey says that her fellow seniors have continued to replicate the leadership she observed her freshman year by helping the rest of the team stay motivated and keeping them in check when things don’t go their way.

Ryan says this group of seniors has been a great model for the younger players, showing what it takes to win consistently: how hard they need to practice, how determined they have to be and how hard they need to fight each game.

The seniors have also worked hard not just at winning, but also at creating a special chemistry on and off the field.

“I’ve made friends that I’ll have for the rest of my life,” said senior midfielder Kayla Mannino. “It’s hard to explain in words. We all have a really strong bond with not just the seniors, but also this whole team.”

The seniors have not fallen short at forming this connection between teammates. Off the field, senior defender Shelina Zadorsky said that the team “cannot get enough of each other.” Some players visit each other for the holidays, allowing them to get to know each other’s families and ultimately become better friends. They also take trips together, as senior forwards Tori McCombs and Nkem Ezurike did during the preseason to games, and plan to spend time together over spring break.

“I think past captains had a lot to do with creating a family,” Zadorsky said. “We’ve tried to do that and bring (that feeling) for these freshman and add them to our family.”

When Ryan looks at how the group has evolved from incoming freshmen to leaders, he cannot help but notice the seniors’ impact on the program

“They transform it every time they step on the field,” Ryan said. “As a freshman, Nkem was the best forward we had on that team by far. Shelina was an immediate impact player. Meghan and Tori were the heart and the soul of the midfield and still are. Kayla and Shelby Garcia were playing a lot of matches. Holly Hein wasn’t originally in that class but was playing great with us in that group their freshman year. It’s just been nonstop excellence from this group of seniors.”