The Michigan women’s soccer team was a quarterfinalist in the NCAA tournament last year, its deepest finish since 2013. The cancellation of all Big Ten fall sports delayed a chance at a return trip by at least a semester, but the Wolverines are working to retain their status as a team among the best in conference and country until they can compete again.
For now, Michigan is allowed 20 hours of team activities per week, with the sole parameter of limited contact. Part of that time goes towards strength and conditioning work begun in the spring and interrupted by the school closure due to COVID-19. Part of the time goes to on-field work, where Michigan coach Jennifer Klein has the luxury of time to teach fundamentals and onboard her seven freshmen.
“When it’s a season and a time of competition, the freshmen are trying to jump on a moving bus,” Klein said. “Now, because there are no games, we're able to slow down a little bit, focus on some things that we might not be able to get to when we're trying to prepare for games. We're trying to keep it fun, trying to keep it light, but also working to continue the development of our style of play, our culture and our program as a whole.”
Klein is especially focused on building individual technique and a team-wide understanding of tactics. Competition helps build team chemistry, she said, so she includes some in practice. No players have requested a transfer since the news. The status of Division I soccer in other conferences is unclear, as the NCAA cancelled fall championships in all conferences, including those that are continuing to play football.
“I think this collection of young women is very committed to our program,” Klein said. “It's disappointing that we're not able to compete, but I think they look at the collection of players and they realize that we have a very special group, and regardless of when we do get to compete, they know that they’re in a position to make our program better and to raise our program standards, and think of it big picture. I think they're very committed to Michigan.”
Klein thinks part of her players’ decisions to stay comes from their love of the non-soccer aspects of their experience here, including the quality of academics and campus life. And the individual ability to raise program standards is due in part to the Wolverines’ circle of influence, which gives all returning players “the opportunity to lead our team in the direction that we want to go,” Klein said.
Players complete a culture class every offseason. When it’s over, the coaching staff assigns each player a role for the upcoming season based on player interest and input from teammates.
Senior forward Emma Cooper is a “wise elder.” Senior midfielder Faith Harper and junior defender Janiece Joyner are “mentors.” Junior forward Sammi Atterbury, junior defender Sydney Shepherd, senior defender Hailey Neumann, and sophomore forwards Hannah Blake, Emily Leyson and Danielle Wolfe are “jokers” or “spark plugs.”
Captains Beal, senior defender Alia Martin and junior midfielder Raleigh Loughman, along with the rest of the upperclassmen, have especially large leadership roles. Klein expects this group to help the team maintain compliance with protocols that slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“I think one of the great things that has come out of this situation is that our senior class has really banded together and taken this opportunity to be true mentors for our freshman class,” Klein said.
Recruiting has also changed this year, thanks to the cancellation of the fall season and the institution of a dead period, during which coaches cannot invite recruits to campus or travel to meet recruits, until at least the end of September.
“But it doesn’t prevent us from communicating and having good conversation over the phone and via Zoom,” Klein said.
When recruits can make campus visits, Klein plans on showing them game film from the past few years. Along with a tour of campus and the athletic facilities, she thinks the program will make a strong case for itself even without the chance for recruits to watch a live game.
She understands why game attendance is usually the centerpiece of a recruiting trip.
“What's the product out on the field?” Klein asked. “How's the team playing? What’s the demeanor of the team and the coaching staff on the sideline?” She acknowledged the importance, for some recruits, of seeing the amount of fans in attendance.
“If a game is something that will be a deciding factor for them, they'll just have to be patient and wait for when those games are,” she said.
With patience of their own and plenty of hard work, the Wolverines are preparing to bring a winning product to the field when it’s safe to play.