Dec. 9, 2013
If you ever need proof that a small group can have a large impact, look no further than the seven seniors on the University of Michigan women's soccer team. In four years, Michigan went from 10 wins in 2010 to 18 in 2013, reaching heights that had been accomplished only once before in the 20-year history of the program -- like the club's most-recent NCAA Elite Eight appearance.
They lit up opposing defenses and shut down prolific offenses. They set records and earned honors. But most importantly, they created a culture and instilled a legacy that won't soon be forgotten, bringing the program back to national prominence. Now, at the end, these seven women look back on their fabulous careers and all the highs and lows along the way.
This is the first entry in a five-part series, a written account of their four-year tenure, straight from the players themselves. First up, the FRESHMAN season.
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Before the core of the class arrived, one member had already spent a year wearing Maize and Blue. Holly Hein, a freshman forward at time, scored three goals and two assists in her rookie season, as Michigan went 6-9-5.
Holly Hein: I was playing forward, so that was a little different. It was an interesting year. Thinking of where we were then to where we are now, it's a completely different college soccer experience. We came in and a lot of our focus was on fitness. To see it evolve from then to now is pretty crazy. We played in a lot of formations. One of them -- Greg's favorite -- was the Christmas tree, so that was a fun game.
Shelby Chambers-Garcia: Now were you at the top of this Christmas tree?
Hein: I was. I was the Nkem of the Christmas tree. We focused a lot on the little things. I remember that spring, all the hype was about these guys coming in and everyone trying to do everything they could to get better because we knew there were some really awesome players on the way. We wanted to win, but we were working hard because of the vision, of what lay ahead down the road.
Sarah Stanczyk (U-M Defender, 2009-10; Volunteer Assistant Coach): Greg always said that we were working with half a deck of cards.
Greg Ryan (Head Coach): The one thing that sticks out to me is Holly coming up and asking, "What can I do to help more?" and I said, "Wait until next year when we have some players to play next to you." We just didn't have the talent pool to compete evenly in the Big Ten.
Meghan Toohey: You could see that they already started progressing. The record improved. They got a lot of ties. You could tell something was happening.
Shelina Zadorsky: I watched them play Penn State pretty tough. That was a good enough indication that they were on track to doing bigger and better things.
Tori McCombs: Toohey, Kayla and I saw them play the University of Miami on our official visits, and they won. Holly scored the only goal. I went back home, and that was what was engraved in my mind. The one game I watched, I watched them win.
Hein: We had some great seniors that year, too, and everyone was really committed to growing the program and making sure we became a team and family first. Having that focus then has really helped us get to where we are now with our team.
Ryan: We brought in a sports psychologist twice. His name was Rob Kehoe. The first time was just to talk to the team about the transition because we knew it was going to be a big one and it was going to be hard, particularly for the upperclassmen that played in 2008 and 2009 that were now going to be challenged for playing time. That was the first day of winter training. Rob helped them define what kind of team they wanted to be and did a great job of framing what 2010 was going to look like.
Stanczyk: Greg told us that every single one of those kids could come in and take our spots. They were good. For the players that were already here, we were excited for the change they would bring but also a little apprehensive because that change could be so large.
game against Detroit
Reinforcements arrived 10 months later for their first preseason together. Their first match came on Aug. 20, 2010, against Detroit, which also happened to be the very first match played at the U-M Soccer Stadium. The Titans scored first but after the first 45 minutes of play, the freshmen woke up. McCombs scored twice, and Ezurike added another as Michigan ended up winning, 3-1. Five freshmen started, as Zadorsky, Toohey and Mannino joined McCombs and Ezurike on the pitch.
Ryan: It was amazing. I was used to seeing a swamp out there.
Kayla Mannino: I think I came out after five minutes. I remember being so excited and nervous. I think I was literally shaking out there.
Nkem Ezurike: I didn't know what was really going on.
McCombs: It was a blur.
Ezurike: I didn't realize how big the game was. I was just excited to be there. I had no idea.
Ryan: Funny story. It's the Friday of our first home game. Everyone is ready to play in the new stadium. The people that approved the stadium from the state come by and say that there are two steps that are illegal. Because of the differing height, they weren't going to allow us to play in the stadium on that day. There's a whole group of engineers from the University of Michigan standing around and they're like, "Gosh, we have to have a meeting about this next week," and I said, "No, we're going to figure this out right now." In fact, I figured out how to make the steps level, explained it to them -- and I'm terrible at this. One of the engineers said he could build something with wood, make it level, and we could play on it that night. Now, I haven't gotten a patent yet, but I wish I had one. There was no way we were going to play anywhere but on that stadium on that first night with that new team.
Haley Kopmeyer (U-M Goalkeeper, 2008-12): We were down 1-0 at halftime. In the locker room, Greg gave it pretty good to the upperclassmen. I mean, what was he going to say? We have so many young kids on the field. He told us we were the better soccer team. He wasn't about to hold us to a lesser standard. We went out and smoked them in the second half.
Stanczyk: I knew from the first practice that Greg was right. This group was going to change things. They were the beginning.
Clare Stachel (U-M Midfielder, 2008-12): Tori and I have all these photos of us hugging from that game. I barely knew her and here I was squeezing her with all my might.
Chambers-Garcia: Especially after what we've come through as a team. If you were to tell me what we were going to end up doing during my freshman year, I don't think I would have believed you.
Hein: It's interesting. During my sophomore year -- your guys' freshman year -- I don't think I even realized it either, really. The year before, we played 20 games, and that was it. We were done. It didn't hit me. You know that stuff is there, but it didn't seem like a reality. You were just playing for Michigan and to have fun. I don't know. It got more competitive as the year went on.
McCombs: I think what made me realize how amazing it was when the upperclassmen told us, "Hey guys, winning is fun. Oh my gosh! I can't believe we're winning. Let's keep winning!" I was like, "Wow, this means a lot to them."
If the Wolverines were to make the NCAA Tournament -- a feat that hadn't happened since 2006 -- they would need quality wins. Sitting at 7-2-4 with only a few weeks left in the season and no victories over ranked opponents, Michigan traveled to Minnesota to take on the 9-5-2 Golden Gophers, ranked No. 23 at the time. Just as the match looked like it was ending in a 0-0 draw, Ezurike scored a goal with just 27 seconds left in the second overtime, setting off fireworks meant for the Minnesota side.
McCombs: It's still one of my favorite games.
Zadorsky: I feel like Minnesota was so good. I was blown away. We came to Minnesota, and I watched them keep the ball. They were a great team.
McCombs: That was one of those games where Greg was like, "Let's go in, have fun, defend a lot..."
Kopmeyer: That first year, Nkem was our first real offensive threat. She was a freshman, though, and that's a lot of pressure to put on her. We were mainly a defensive-minded team that played a lot in the counter. It had been that way for a few years.
Zadorsky: I didn't think we really grasped the idea of how great it would be to win on their field. We just stunned them. And Nkem scoring that goal with 30 seconds left and fireworks go off for us?
McCombs: It was an amazing goal.
Hein: I was injured. I don't think I was able to stand up then. I was watching the video stream. When Nkem scored, I got so excited by myself in my room, I jumped up.
McCombs: Our team had this history of never winning in overtime, and that was like the first overtime win we had in a long time.
Hein: Was that the start of Nkem's goal celebration where she just ran away from everyone?
Zadorsky: We all would just chase Nkem.
Ryan: The ball goes in, and Nkem just takes off. Everyone is chasing her, trying to catch up to congratulate her, but she's so fast, nobody could catch her.
Ezurike: I don't know what happened. I just started running.
Stanczyk: Gosh, I played so bad in that game. I remember thinking, "Thank God we have Nkem and thank God we have this whole class."
Chambers-Garcia: Those fireworks? We weren't expecting those at all.
Mannino: It was their Senior Day, wasn't it?
Chambers-Garcia: It was, but we don't have fireworks for our Senior Day. It added to our atmosphere.
Stachel: That was hilarious. It was their Senior Day, and fireworks went off for us.
The next weekend, Michigan downed another ranked team, beating No. 16 Illinois, 3-2. With a 10-4-4 record, their postseason chances looked better, but it still wasn't a sure thing. The Wolverines' last match of the season was on the road against an unranked (but Big Ten-leading) Penn State side. They were, however, on the wrong side of the result, losing a 1-0 heartbreaker in double overtime with just 17 seconds left, despite 14 saves by goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer.
Hein: That game was streaming, too. You guys defended forever and were so close to getting another result against a good team.
Zadorsky: I think that's why it was such a letdown because we were so close. We fell over after that game. We were just completely exhausted and emotionally drained.
Hein: I still have this vivid memory of the goal they scored.
Toohey: So do I. It was from a free kick, and it just skipped through.
Hein: I wasn't even there. It's just interesting the things you remember.
Kopmeyer: It was wild. We had a few games that year where we were able to come out with a win despite being outshot 15-2 or something. We sat in so well and blocked shots. That game was a real bummer. I think that was the game that won them the Big Ten, too. They were celebrating. It was one of those games you just try to block from your memory.
Stachel: I didn't know it at the time, but that game was a foretelling of what was to come with that class.
Stanczyk: For some reason, I really remember Tori in that game. She was a standout. She runs. That's Tori. Even when I was playing, I was looking over to her and was just in awe of how young she was, playing in a system she hadn't played in and in a style she wasn't used to. She was shutting down good players and being effective.
McCombs: That game stayed with us for four years. It helped develop the rivalry we've built with Penn State.
Mannino: It fueled our fire.
Kopmeyer: Penn State was so dominant. Even then, despite the fact we had a young team and weren't really pressing, it showed we could hang with anyone.
With the Big Ten Tournament not returning until the following season, the Wolverines went back to Ann Arbor wondering if their season had just ended. The NCAA Selection Show was the following evening.
Toohey: I remember sitting in the room postseason watching the NCAA Selection Show and just not knowing anything. We thought we were going to be in it because everyone else was saying it. I remember Sarah [Stanczyk] specifically talking about how bad she wanted to be in it.
Stanczyk: I was not with the team because I had this class that was three hours long. I shut off all my electronics because I wanted to have my moment. I wanted to see it for myself and have that unadulterated joy. I had my friend record it since I didn't have a TV. I stood -- literally stood -- inches in front of the TV just wringing my hands and waiting. We were one of the last teams called. When we popped up on the screen, I screamed and started crying. I didn't even have anyone to celebrate with! I was so happy. That was one of the best moments.
Zadorsky: Greg always prepared us for both scenarios. He never would say, "We're in."
Toohey: His confidence is pretty accurate.
Hein: The evolution of Greg pre-Selection Show is pretty funny. This year it was, "Guys, we're in. Just where we are in the bracket," whereas in year's past, it was more like, "Eh, we'll see..."
Ryan: I was not surprised that we made it. It was just a question of who we were going to play. That Penn State game was critical. We had to prove we could play with a top team, and we did that on that day.
Mannino: We were hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.
McCombs: I remember we were in the last bracket, and we all thought we were going to Notre Dame.
Chambers-Garcia: For me, to be in the locker room and wait for us to be on that screen and know I was a part of it, that was surreal. To come full circle and be a part of that was awesome.
Mannino: Especially being freshmen, we didn't know what was going on. We didn't care where we were going or who we were playing. We were just excited to be in the tournament.
Zadorsky: Our heads were spinning.
Toohey: Greg, Dino (assistant coach Dean Duerst) and Angie (assistant coach Angela Napoli) sat by the door at the side of the locker room. Once they saw it was Oklahoma State, they just got up really fast and scuffled out to go find anything they could about them.
McCombs: I remember sitting next to Dino and he was like, "Where are we? Come on! Show us Michigan!"
Michigan was one of the last teams into the field of 64 and drew No. 6 Oklahoma State in the first round in Stillwater. McCombs scored to put U-M up 1-0 a little less than 23 minutes into the contest, but the Cowgirls scored two goals in a 1:09 stretch during the second half to take the lead for good.
McCombs: I scored with my shin guard.
Chambers-Garcia: Their keeper went to clear it, right? And Tori just charged her. The ball went right off her and into the goal.
McCombs: I blacked out after that. Nkem came over to me and yelled, "TOR!" It took me a minute to realize that just happened, that, you know, we're beating the No. 6 team in the country.
Toohey: Their fans were mean to us.
McCombs: We were getting subbed in. It was dead silent. I was standing on the sidelines by their fans. One of them -- a girl -- goes, "No. 8," followed by a long pause and then she says, "How old are you?" I was like, "Well done."
Toohey: Then KG (Kristen Goncalves) got hurt -- something with her knee -- and Clare got pushed to outside back.
Ryan: We weren't deep at all, and that ended up hurting us.
Zadorsky: After that happened, we lost a lot of our attack.
McCombs: We were killing them in the counter before that.
Hein: I think that was the time when our counter-attacking skills were really refined and developed, those years.
McCombs: Every time I think of that game, I'm still a little bitter. We could've won.
Kopmeyer: You don't know what it feels like until your career is on the line. For a lot of people, they may never play competitively again. All of a sudden, that's on the line and you're like, "Holy crap," and you're fighting for everything. This game has been our whole lives. You get to that point, and you fight to keep it alive.
Toohey: Being on that field after the game, I don't remember feeling defeated.
Mannino: I don't really remember much from that game other than what happened afterwards.
Chambers-Garcia: You know what else was interesting about that game that I thought of the other day? When we were huddled in that tent afterwards, to see our seniors crying; I don't know. It came across me the other day when that was us in the locker room.
Zadorsky: To see how quickly it went. That's what blows my mind.
Chambers-Garcia: That's me, looking down at these freshmen who have three years left.
Stachel: We had never done that before. We never celebrated the seniors. That was the first year where we really bonded at the end. We wanted to send off seniors with a salute.
Ezurike: There were a lot of blank stares.
Stanczyk: It was a sporadic moment. We had all bonded so much over the season. Regardless of any struggles or the loss that we just had, we all cared a lot about each other. As seniors during that season, we didn't know if they were on the same level of understanding, of knowing what it would take. You hope they're pulling for the same thing you are. In that moment, we realized that they were with us, that they did want it, and we were so grateful that they helped us because we couldn't have done it without them. Making the NCAA Tournament that year would not have been possible without those seniors. No way, no how.
ON TUESDAY: SOPHOMORE YEAR (2011)