There was so much promise.
The Michigan women’s soccer team had shown up to its preseason workouts in mid-August equipped to improve on its strong showing the year before. It was poised to bounce back from a heartbreaking 2-1 loss to Oklahoma State in the first round of the 2010 NCAA Tournament — a game in which it held a one-goal halftime lead.
Yes, the Wolverines entered the season as a young squad with 18 underclassmen, but they didn’t care. Almost the entire starting lineup returned. Forward Nkem Ezurike, the team’s top goal scorer as a freshman, spoke excitedly of a sophomore encore and redshirt junior goalie Haley Kopmeyer was ready to reprise her role as one of the Big Ten’s best keepers.
This was an exuberant and talented bunch set to take the Big Ten by storm and determined to make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“I think, hands down, everyone (believes) that we will get back to the tournament,” said redshirt junior Clare Stachel before the season. “We are not going to go backwards on that.”
And early on, Michigan fulfilled that potential.
The Wolverines put aside their shutout loss to Akron to start the season and won eight of their next 12 games, starting the season with a record of 8-3-2. During that period they jumped to second place in the Big Ten with a 3-1-1 record after five conference games.
Michigan also scored 21 goals during that timespan and worked hard to shed its “offensively challenged” label, one that had clung to past years’ teams. The team was aggressive on the attack and was on pace to tally the most goals in a season during Michigan coach Greg Ryan’s four-year tenure.
As the offense became a weapon for the Wolverines, Kopmeyer anchored a stifling defensive unit. She limited the opposition to just 11 goals in the first 13 games and posted six shutouts during that period.
But even in its wins, Michigan suffered losses. The injuries started to pile up midway through the Big Ten season. The team lost starting sophomore midfielder Meghan Toohey to a season-ending leg injury just three games after starting junior midfielder Holly Hein played her last game of the season due to treatment of thyroid cancer.
With the loss of key contributors disrupting the dynamic on the field and taking an emotional toll on the team, Michigan struggled mightily towards the end of the season.
Players shuffled positions to try to fill the void left by Toohey and Hein, but their absence was too much to overcome. The team lost all but one of their last six games and was shut out in four of those contests, including crippling home losses to Northwestern and Ohio State. Starting junior midfielder Emily Jaffe was also sorely missed over the final three games, as she underwent an appendectomy.
The offense became anemic and one-dimensional. Until senior defender Kim Siebert’s goal against Illinois with about five minutes left in the season, Nkem Ezurike was the lone Wolverine to score since a Sept. 23 loss to Minnesota at home — a span of roughly nine games , during which Ezurike scored seven goals.
Ezurike ended the season with a career-high 11 goals but received very little help. The only other player who scored more than two goals on the team was Stachel, who tallied five.
“We just weren’t the same team at the end of the season,” Ryan said. “We’re not the same team without Meghan on the field and we’re not the same team without Holly. Emily Jaffe was also doing a great job before she had her appendix taken out. It’s realistic that if you’re going to lose three critical players for that period of time, it’s going to impact your success.”
Michigan’s late-season slide can also be attributed to its youth. With multiple injured players and very little upperclassmen, Ryan played a consistent lineup of seven underclassmen in the final games — a tough test against some of the Big Ten’s best teams.
Defensive lapses and crucial blunders — turning the ball over deep in their own zone — made by the young back line also gave opponents ample scoring opportunities near the end of the season. During its late-season swoon Michigan gave up critical goals late in games, typical of a young team.
“With age, comes experience — and that is something that you can’t teach anyone,” Stachel said. “The Big Ten is just a completely different game compared to anything else.”
The Wolverines will enter the offseason with just three graduating seniors — midfielder Courtney Mercier and defenders Kristen Goncalves and Kim Siebert — and will once again return almost their entire starting lineup next season.
Though it will be slightly more experienced, the team will enter next season just like it started this one: A talented and exuberant bunch intent on taking the Big Ten by storm.