Nkem Ezurike (L) and Rachael Mack
Oct. 24, 2013
Last Sunday (Oct. 20) was a good one for Wolverine fans. The soccer teams won back-to-back Big Ten games at U-M Soccer Stadium, while the field hockey program rallied to knock off rival Ohio State in overtime. The day was particularly special for seniors Rachael Mack and Nkem Ezurike, who both etched their names into their respective program's record book as the all-time leading goal scorer.
Both Wolverines entered Sunday's contest needing one goal to tie the program record and two to outright break it. Both did the latter, and they did it within just three hours of each other.
Mack's record-breaking goal hit the backboard at 1:43 p.m. in Columbus, Ohio. It was the perfect script, sealing the Wolverines' 2-1 overtime victory against OSU. Known for her ability to score the spectacular goal, Mack's overtime game-winner was just that.
She had set up the play on the left sideline after a Buckeye defender mistrapped the ball, and it went out of bounds, turning it over to U-M near midfield around five minutes into the extra frame.
"We got the ball on the sideline, and I just thought, 'Alright, we're going here,'" said Mack. "I saw Lauren Hauge up front and, as Marcia [Pankratz] would say, I schlooped the ball into the space. Lauren sprinted onto it, and I kind of scurried up behind her. I was open -- surprisingly open -- and she passed back the ball. A defender stepped up, I saw her put her stick down, and I just thought, 'There's no way you're getting that,' and I spun around. I don't even know if I saw where the goal was, I just hit the ball where I knew it to be. It went in, and it was awesome."
Mack's shot, taken on the move following a spin move that left the OSU defender on the turf, sailed high into the right-side netting of the cage, just sneaking in past the post. With her fists in the air, Mack ran back to midfield, where her teams sprinted from the sideline to meet her in celebration.
"After the game, my whole body was just shaking," said Mack. "I just still couldn't believe it. It was a game we really needed and wanted to win. Just to be able to do that with the girls and step it up the whole game, it was just an amazing feeling. I wouldn't have been able to do this without my teammates. From my freshman year all the way to this moment, it's been incredible. It's great to do it with Team 41."
"It's very poetic," said head coach Marcia Pankratz. "That's really the way it was supposed to be. It couldn't have been a bigger game. She's been the backbone of the program for four years. She works really, really hard. She loves Michigan, plays for Michigan and plays to be a champion. Good things happen to those who work hard. I'm just really proud of her, and I'm very happy for her."
Coming into her senior season, Ezurike knew about the records. Whether it was the preseason, a mid-week preview or a postgame wrap-up, she was nearly always asked the same question. And every time, her answer was pretty similar.
"I don't really think about it."
But how can you not? Coming into her final season at U-M, Ezurike had scored 35 goals. To put that into perspective, she has accounted for 37 percent of the team's scoring by herself. She needed only 10 goals to become the school's all-time career scoring leader, a record that stood since Kacy Beitel capped her career back in 2000. Considering Ezurike's skill and position on the field, perhaps it was inevitable.
All great forwards have the ability to score in bunches, but even the great ones are slowed at times. For most of this season, Ezurike was held relatively in check, never scoring more than one goal in a contest. But to her, it didn't matter how much or how little she scored, so long as her team walked off the field as winners.
Heading into last Friday's match against Indiana, Ezurike found herself just three goals away. By the time Sunday evening came around, the record books changed for good.
The match with the Hoosiers was your classic Big Ten battle. Both defenses looked sharp and as a result, both offenses were dormant, all the way up to the 75th minute. Draped by two defenders for most of the match, Ezurike received a pretty through ball from sophomore Corinne Harris and found herself in behind the back line with only the goalkeeper to beat. She fired a shot up, and the keeper reacted late, putting Michigan ahead, 1-0, for the lead and the eventual win.
Sunday's match against Purdue was a little different. Trailing 1-0 after conceding an early goal, Ezurike got dragged down in the penalty box, leading to a penalty kick and a golden chance to not only knot up the score but move closer to the record. Problem is she hates taking penalty kicks.
The referee placed the ball on the spot, but there was no call from the bench and nobody was stepping up. Maybe the other 10 players on the field thought the same thing. Maybe they all thought Nkem should be the one to do it. She walked slowly toward the ball, waiting to see if any of her teammates were going to take it. Nobody did, so she decided to do it herself.
The result? Buried into the back-left corner; 1-1 and one goal away.
Around 4:20 p.m., not even three hours after Mack set her team's scoring record 190 miles south in Columbus, Ezurike scored again, and the record was hers. Just like on Friday, Harris was the assistor, dribbling the ball into the box and firing a shot on net that was saved off the line by a Purdue defender. The ball caromed out to a charging Ezurike, who ironically placed her shot on net that went right in-between another defender's legs and into the back of the net.
When she saw the ball go in, she immediately ran to the bench with a huge smile on her face. With a one-goal lead and less than 30 minutes to play, Ezurike was not content. She totaled 10 shots against the Boilermakers -- a season high -- and nearly added a few more goals. Christina Ordonez added a third strike several minutes later, and Michigan cruised to a 3-1 victory.
She was asked about the goal after the match. Her response was typical Nkem.
"We were tied at that point," she said. "That goal put us ahead. It was big for our team."
Ezurike, always the humble player, was quick to point out that her record would not have been possible without the support -- and play -- of her teammates.
"It's a reflection of how far this team has come in four years," she said. "There are great players here. I wouldn't have been able to get those goals without them."
Ezurike learned after the match that Mack had set field hockey's scoring record earlier in the day. Though she doesn't get to see too many of Mack's games (they usually play at the same times), the two are good friends off the field.
"I talked to Rachael and told her congratulations," Ezurike said. "She's a great player and a force up top."
With that record behind her, the newly minted all-time leading scorer turns her focus to the rest of the season. There are three matches left before the postseason hits, and Michigan is chasing its first Big Ten championship. With a lot to play for, she has not had much time to reflect on the record. But she did give herself one moment, one she shared with her mother, Christie, who traveled all the way from Nova Scotia to see her daughter make history.
"Having it is surreal," she said. "I'll look back on this and smile and remember how awesome it was."
It is a sentiment shared by Mack. While only a handful were able to see her goal live, video has since gone viral, and she has received countless calls, emails and social media messages of congratulations from Wolverine alums, fans, family and friends on both sides of the Atlantic.
"I can't believe the amount of nice, wonderful messages I've received from people," said Mack. "It's just a real honor to be able to represent Michigan. Coming from England, the opportunity to be able to come here and make the most of everything, it's really hard to put into words exactly what it means and how it feels. It's home. Michigan is home. It's a part of me that I'll never forget. To be able to be a part of this program that has such a legacy and to leave my mark, it's just awesome."