As a freshman, Tori McCombs proved she was a capable forward. She ranked second on the Michigan women’s soccer team in both goals and points, eventually earning a spot in the starting lineup.
Her reward: a position change to defense.
But as well as she played last year attacking opposing goalkeepers, the sophomore has played even better this season protecting her own goalie.
“After being such a key offensive player for us last year, (McCombs) is now such a key defensive player,” said sophomore defender Shelina Zadorsky. “Her speed and her ability to read the game have made her a key component to our defense.”
Following a heart-wrenching defeat to Oklahoma State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season, Michigan coach Greg Ryan looked at his roster and knew he would have to make alterations to his lineup.
Last year’s senior defenders Jackie Carron, Amanda Bowery and Sarah Stanczyk combined to play 188 career games for the Wolverines, starting all but four of them. They revamped Michigan’s defense last year, leading an aggressive style of play that allowed just 18 goals, after giving up 27 and 32 in the previous two seasons. They provided experience and stability — and none of them would return to play for Michigan this season.
Ryan was determined to maintain the defensive intensity that his team exhibited and began tweaking his roster last spring, immediately experimenting with McCombs on the back line. Considering she’s never played defense before, her position change to defense seemed illogical. Adding an inexperienced defender to an already young defense appeared to defy conventional wisdom, as her presence would seem to expose more holes in the defense than it would cover.
But Ryan saw something different. He examined McCombs’s skill set and believed her talent would help ease the loss of the graduates while also adding a new element to that side of the ball. For Ryan, it was a no-brainer.
“(McCombs) is so athletic, so fast, so physical, and so tenacious that she was an obvious candidate to start in the back,” Ryan said.
The results have been immeasurable.
Playing extended minutes as a defender for the first time in her life, McCombs has seamlessly transitioned to the back line alongside senior Kristen Goncalves and sophomores Kayla Mannino and Zadorsky, and she has been essential in helping the team maintain their defensive intensity.
Her play has spoken for itself. Early in the season against Western Michigan, a ball slipped through the hands of redshirt junior goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer and was headed for the back of the net. In position backing up her goalie, McCombs controlled and cleared the ball, making a play fit for a more experienced defender.
Zadorsky praised McCombs’s ability to learn quickly and communicate, maintaining that integrating her into the defense hasn’t been hard because of her ability to read the game.
McCombs acclimation to defense has also impressed Ryan and is a big reason the team has allowed fewer than one goal per game.
“Right now, I can tell you, she is one of our best defenders for sure,” Ryan said. “Her game against Nebraska was stellar. We played against one of the best strikers in the country, Morgan Marlborough, and (McCombs) was an integral part of us shutting her down and only allowing one goal on that road trip. She dominates the matchups, and as a defender, that’s the key.”
McCombs asserts that it hasn’t been easy.
She pointed out that she’s had to absorb a whole different skill set. Although it took her a while to learn body positioning and knowing when to play aggressive, her athleticism has helped her compensate for the learning curve. Mentally, though, she’s still learning how to think about the game.
“It’s a different kind of game,” McCombs said. “On offense if you mess up, you can recover from it, but if you mess up on defense, there’s a big possibility that your opponent might score. When you’re on defense, you always have to be focused on moving and adjusting to what’s next and thinking about the next play. I’ve finally gotten to that state of mind, but it took me a bit of time to get there.”
McCombs attributes part of her success on defense to Zadorsky and Goncalves — more experienced defenders who are constantly talking to her and teaching her about playing that side of the ball.
Even though McCombs has only been playing defense for less than a season, Ryan has complete confidence in the New Hampshire native. Ryan’s been so impressed with her play of late that he suggested that she could possibly be the starting outside defender for the team for the next few years.
“I have so much confidence in (McCombs) to handle herself back there and handle her opponents,” Ryan said. “She’s made a huge impact for us.”