KENT, Ohio They came from all over the country. Nearly 100 alumni, students and other Michigan athletes made the trip to witness a moment of far more magnitude than this small city could hold.
For once, football played second fiddle at Michigan, and for good reason history was in the making.
The national champion Michigan field hockey players rushed the field with chest-bumping pride, mauling each other in both smiles and tears. Nothing could take this moment away. Dozens of fellow Michigan varsity athletes from the softball, gymnastics and swimming teams carpooled to make the trip in support of the “Michigan family,” because they realized how special this day was.
As sophomore defender Stephanie Johnson, a member of the first women”s national title team in school history, waved the Michigan flag, she symbolically carried the torch for future women champions.
“It was an unreal feeling,” Johnson said. “It didn”t hit me until all the fans rushed onto the field how special being a Michigan athlete is and being part of the Michigan family.”
The feeling was the same for the representatives of women”s teams that have came so close to the “Holy Grail” in past years.
“There”s nowhere else I”d rather be right now,” said Meghan Doe, a sophomore on the Michigan softball team. “This is something we”ll always remember.”
Nobody expected this Michigan team to make it so far except the Wolverines. Maybe that”s why they seemed so loose before the game, dancing around on the bus, playing touch football on the field and holding the confidence of everyone who dons the maize and blue. It didn”t matter that the unseeded Wolverines started off the season 3-2 and finished third in the conference tournament. It didn”t matter that they faced the top-ranked Terrapins, or that no field hockey team with five losses had ever won a national title.
The landmark win came against a familiar foe, the same Maryland team that deprived Michigan of the title two years ago. The Terrapins were an experienced, tested, senior-laden team that boasted 10 players who had already tasted a national title at the expense of the upstart Wolverines.
But this was a different year, a different team, a different mentality.
Johnson admitted that the Wolverines had a “magical run” in 1999 and were on such a “Cloud Nine” that just getting to the national title game was special.
This time, they were here for keeps on a mission that could not be stopped.
An inspiring illustration of this will to win came a few minutes into the game, when Johnson took a rocket slapshot to the face in front of the Michigan net. She fell to the ground in obvious pain and was helped to the sidelines. But just minutes later, after watching her teammates bravely battle on the field, Johnson returned to the game, receiving cheers from the crowd.
Hail to the Victors, Valiant.
“I feel like in the last two weeks, this calm, cool attitude has come over our team,” said senior goalkeeper Maureen Tasch. “And we”ve all been in a zone.”
Tasch helped the Wolverines remain calm and composed after a flurry of Maryland opportunities. Michigan then utilized its team speed and opportunistic nature to tally a late first-half goal to give it the lead for good.
Michigan was outshot and, at certain instances, outplayed. But in keeping with the school”s rich tradition, it was not outclassed.
The Terrapins became so frustrated as each shot was steered aside that their coaching staff was reprimanded by the officials for unsportsmanlike conduct. But the Maryland coaches had nothing but respect for the Wolverines after it was all said and done.
“In 1999, we were in a completely different class than they were,” Maryland coach Missy Meharg said. “They”ve come a long way and I have the utmost respect for them.”
And why not?
The only other Big Ten team to capture a field hockey title was Iowa in 1986.
But with Michigan”s crown and perennial national prowess, the Wolverines have leveled the playing field with dynasties from the East Coast such as Old Dominion, Wake Forest and Maryland.
And they couldn”t have set a more important precedent for future Wolverines. After the last seconds ticked away, the Wolverines immediately rushed to the front row of the stands to embrace their loyal followers. Whether it was parents, alumni, fellow athletes or classmates, they all began a rousing chant of “It”s great to be a Michigan Wolverine.”
After a moment like this, it”s hard not to feel that way.
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org