The Michigan women’s soccer team has never won a Big Ten regular season championship. But this may be the year it finally breaks through.
Entering the brunt of their Big Ten schedule, the Wolverines boast a 7-2-0 record, three-straight victories, a conference-leading .44 goals-against average and no defeats at home. Their only two losses occurred the same weekend in California; with eight players battling the stomach flu, Michigan fell to Cal State Northridge and No. 11 Long Beach State.
The Michigan roster features three players who participated in the under-20 women’s World Cup in Japan. Junior defender Shelina Zadorsky (Canada), junior forward Nkem Ezurike (Canada) and sophomore midfielder Christina Murillo (Mexico) represented their countries this summer. Since returning to Michigan, they’ve caught the eye of the rest of the conference: Last week, Ezurike won Big Ten offensive player of the week and Zadorsky won Big Ten defensive player of the week.
The Wolverines know they have potential. Coming off of a disappointing 2011 campaign which saw them fail to qualify for the Big Ten Tournament, the players are thirsty for success.
“Our goal is to finish in the top four,” said Michigan coach Greg Ryan. “If possible, win a big championship.”
Michigan could rely on their solid defense and nearly-unbeatable goaltending to earn them that championship. The defensive unit has recorded six shutouts this season and has not surrendered a goal in more than 270 minutes of play. Ryan, who led the U.S. women’s national team from 2005-2007, compared the Wolverines’ defense to that squad.
“This is what a professional back line looks like,” Ryan said. “When I coached the U.S. national team, that’s what the back line looked like.”
When the defense falters, senior netminder Haley Kopmeyer has risen to the challenge. Kopmeyer leads the Big Ten in saves and shutouts, and also holds the program’s record for all-time saves. Zadorsky attributed much of her unit’s success to Kopmeyer.
“It’s great to have that confidence behind me,” Zadorsky said. “She’s just so impressive back there.”
Michigan’s solid back line has frustrated opponents, often forcing them to send more players forward, which creates openings for the Wolverines’ offense. Through nine games, nine different players have scored, and nine players have recorded assists.
Michigan will face a stiff challenge this weekend, playing No. 14 Wisconsin on the road. Indeed, the Big Ten as a whole figures to be difficult, as no team has a losing record. And the Wolverines are relatively inexperienced, featuring eight freshman and 18 underclassman on the roster.
But maybe Michigan’s defense really is world-class. Maybe Ezurike, Zadorsky, and Murillo can represent the Block “M” as well as they represented their countries. Maybe the freshman will play like seniors. And maybe — just maybe — the Wolverines will hoist a first-place trophy this fall.