There’s no better way for a team to improve than to schedule tough matches against high-ranked opponents. If the first three games of the Michigan women’s soccer team’s season are any evidence, the team has taken that philosophy to heart.
After a tough preseason full of daily double practices, the Wolverines opened competitive play two weeks ago with an exhibition match against one of the most storied women’s soccer programs in the nation, North Carolina. Last weekend, they jumped on a plane again, heading West to battle No. 27 Brigham Young and Utah.
“It’s going to be tough,” Michigan coach Debbie Rademacher said of Michigan’s upcoming year. “It’s not going to be any easier than last weekend. Our schedule is pretty much tough all the way through.”
The Wolverines have a lot to prepare for if the games in Utah are to be considered “easy.” Michigan went 0-1-1 for the weekend, fighting through rough and aggressive play.
The mental and physical fatigue that results from such play was a big factor for the Wolverines when they took on the Utes Sunday afternoon.
“I don’t think we were completely ready to play,” Rademacher said. “We were mentally unprepared, and we didn’t show up ready to battle. We started the match on our heels and were on the defensive the entire time.”
Utah took advantage of Michigan’s slow start and jumped out to an early 3-0 lead in the first half. The Wolverines couldn’t get going until midway through the second half, and by then it was too late.
“We didn’t play nearly as well as we could have,” senior co-captain Erika Kleinholz said. “We definitely didn’t challenge hard, and our individual battles weren’t played that well.”
Friday’s game against Brigham Young was much more competitive, and much longer, as the game was delayed during the second half because
of lightning. The four-hour contest was a defensive battle that ended in a 0-0 tie after two overtimes. Although Brigham Young is ranked ten spots lower than Michigan, it has a solid reputation at home. The Cougars have an overall home record of 78-13 since 1995, and have won 9 of their last home games. The 2,191-person crowd set a record for the largest attendance in the history of South Stadium.
“Holding them scoreless and coming out with the tie was okay,” Rademacher said. “Physically is was very tough, and we played well defensively.”
Although Michigan didn’t come home with a win last weekend, the young team gained important experience against good competition. With six seniors graduating last year, there are many spots to be filled in the starting roster, and some of them are being filled by this years entering class.
“I’m starting freshmen because they’ve earned it,” Rademacher said. “We’re still figuring things out. We’re trying to find out who’s going to be that starting eleven.”
Part of the starting eleven could include Katelin Spencer, Judy Coffman, Lindsey Cottrell, and Megan Tuura, all freshmen who got a chance to start last weekend. Spencer notched her first collegiate point with an assist in the Utah game, and Megan Tuura made four saves against BYU before she suffered a concussion and had to sit out the overtime.
Kleinholz praised her freshmen teammates, citing Tuura as a “boost” in the backfield and Coffman’s ability to cross with her left foot.
“We’ve got a good group and they’re just going to get better throughout the season,” Rademacher said.
Improvement over last weekend’s play will be key for the Wolverines in the upcoming months, as their schedule seems to only get harder and harder. They will face USC and Oakland at home in the upcoming Nike Challenge, and then start Big Ten play two weeks after that.
After their remarkable run to the 2002 NCAA quarterfinals, when they began the season unranked, Michigan expects nothing less this year. A No. 17 ranking at the beginning of the season is promising, but Rademacher says that her players aren’t worrying about it too much.
“The team knows that you’re only as good as your last game,” she said. “Right now it doesn’t really matter. We just need to focus on getting better and playing better as a team. We have some individuals that aren’t playing at the top of their game.”
That will hopefully change soon as the Wolverines enter the brunt of the fall season with hopes of repeating the successes of last year.