The Michigan women’s soccer team’s seniors hoped to go out with a bang, but instead left the field with heartbreak. Seniors Haley Kopmeyer, Clare Stachel and Emily Jaffe hoped the leave the U-M Soccer Complex victorious once again, but on this senior night, the 3-2 loss to Illinois proved it was not meant to be.

But, the fact that a single loss is devastating shows a complete change in a program that just last year struggled in most of its games. The one constant throughout the Wolverine rebuilding process has been the seniors, who have been instrumental in turning the program around.

Each of the seniors has a special role on this team that makes them irreplaceable. Kopmeyer has become one of the top goalkeepers in the Big Ten for the past four years. Stachel has been a solid contributor in the midfield, often joining the offensive attack. And Jaffe will be remembered for her header that finally snapped the program’s winless streak against Michigan State.

Michigan coach Greg Ryan began his Wolverine coaching career when these women were freshmen, though Jaffe later transferred in January 2010. Despite all the bumps throughout the rebuilding process, Ryan believes his seniors have been instrumental for the turnaround.

“They’ve been critical, they’re great leaders,” said Ryan. “And they’re great soccer players.”

This Michigan team is very young, with just three seniors, but that is indicative of both the fortitude of Kopmeyer, Stachel, Jaffe and of the troubles of Ryan’s early years. In Ryan’s first two years at the helm, Michigan only won one Big Ten game each year, and many of the team’s players decided to quit or transfer away from Michigan because of the disappointing seasons. But Kopmeyer and Stachel were a few of the only players to stand by Ryan.

“They’ve put so much time and effort into it,” Ryan said. “They’ve been a huge part of our rebuilding process.”

Now that the seniors have nearly finished their careers in a Michigan uniform, the task for Ryan is to replace their production. The seniors have qualities that will be tough to replace, but the landscape is much different in 2012 than it was in 2008. Now one of the top programs in the Big Ten, Michigan can recruit top talent more easily than it could when Ryan was struggling. But questions still remain for the Wolverines.

“There’s always big holes to fill,” Ryan said. “Can we fill Haley’s shoes, or Clare’s shoes, or Emily’s shoes?”

Ryan feels very optimistic about the squad next year, though.

“I think this team is going to be better and stronger next year,” Ryan said. “If you look at us next year, we’ve got a lot of talent and a lot of experienced talent.

“Our senior class next year is going to be unbelievable.”

So now there seems to be limitless hope for Michigan’s future when just a few years ago, everything seemed bleak for the program. While players have come and gone under Ryan, only the seniors honored in Saturday night’s game have stuck through thick and thin. And it’s no surprise that as they’ve improved, the program has improved with them.

While Saturday at the Big Ten Tournament may be their last hurrah, Kopmeyer’s, Stachel’s and Jaffe’s legacies will emanate well beyond the few years they spent here at Michigan.

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