Dec. 11, 2013
This is the third entry in a five-part series, a written account of their four-year tenure, straight from the players themselves. Today, the JUNIOR season.
* * *
The ending to the season before left a sour taste in everyone's mouth. When the team returned for preseason, everyone was fired up and dedicated. There was an emphasis placed on winning non-conference matches, as the team knew it would be without three key starters -- Nkem Ezurike, Shelina Zadorsky and Christina Murillo -- due to competition in the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Japan.
Meghan Toohey: We knew that we needed to win early in order to have a good season. That was our biggest motivation. If we can get through those games and then get them back, we were going to be great. We didn't need to talk about it in any other way.
Kayla Mannino: That's what I remember, just thinking, "Alright, let's just get through this patch and do the best we can." We knew they were leaving huge voids on our team. We tried to compensate for that, and it worked well for us.
Greg Ryan (Head Coach): We were going to miss those three for up to six games, and they're not just three players, but three great players. You go 2-4 or 3-3 and you're in a dodgy position to even make the NCAA Tournament. I knew this was an NCAA Tournament team. There was no doubt.
Christina Ordonez (U-M Midfielder, 2012-13): For our class, at least for me, I felt like the pressure was on. We had to step up.
Jen Pace (U-M Midfielder, 2011-13): Honestly, I think our biggest concern was who was going to score all the goals now that Nkem wasn't there.
Nkem Ezurike: It hit us when Greg talked to us about redshirting.
Shelina Zadorsky: That was awful.
Tori McCombs: I refused to let Nkem and Shelina not graduate with us.
Ezurike: I didn't want that to happen.
Ryan: There was no hesitation from Nkem or Shelina about what they wanted. They wanted to be a part of this team, graduate with this class, and they wanted us to do well so when they came back, they could jump right, in and we could make something special happen.
Hein: If we could do it without one of our top defenders and our top striker, it was going to be a great season for us. It gave me a lot of confidence, going from a moment where I wasn't sure if I knew what I was doing on the back line to being able to feel confident in helping run the back line. It was hard but a good time for us.
Michigan won its first four matches that season, including a convincing 5-0 victory over Fordham in the season opener, erasing any doubts about slow starts. Then came the team's second California trip in as many seasons. After Canada was eliminated in Japan, Ezurike and Zadorsky met the team during the trip and played some minutes despite being majorly jetlagged. Despite numerous members of the team falling ill before a titanic matchup with No. 11 Long Beach State, the Wolverines held a 1-0 lead only to concede two goals in the final three minutes in a stunning 2-1 defeat.
Hein: I remember them coming back. Someone said, "Nkem and Shelina are at the hotel!" and we go knock on their door, and they were just like, "Hellooooo." You could see they were exhausted.
Zadorsky: That travel was the worst. Oh my God.
Ryan: But then Christina Murillo was fine. It was the strangest thing. She was like, "I feel good. I'm ready!"
Toohey: If I had to put my finger on a moment or two that changed our season, it was during that California trip, when we lost those games.
Hein: We got sick that weekend, too!
Clare Stachel (U-M Forward, 2008-12): I was one of the first people to get sick. Then we got back, and everyone got it.
McCombs: Nkem and Shelina brought back the plague from Japan. I still think it was them.
Ezurike: When I was coming back, I was thinking how we missed the majority of the preseason, and they won all their games to that point. Then we come back and lose both of those games.
Zadorsky: It surprised me sometimes how quickly we were able to bounce back from things. That could have definitely turned our season the wrong way. We started the season so well, came to California and lost both of those games pretty dramatically.
McCombs: Remember how angry I was after the Long Beach State game?
Haley Kopmeyer (U-M Goalkeeper, 2008-12): A brawl would've happened after that game, and it would've been against the referees.
Zadorsky: I couldn't talk. I don't think I spoke the whole way home.
Hein: Going in from the night before, none of us knew whether or not we were going to play. Physically, I hadn't felt that bad in a long time. I'm not sure I actually ate anything that day.
Stachel: Watching Toohey and Holly was pretty awesome because you know they were dead tired and very sick, but they still played the whole game. Afterwards, Toohey sat on the bench for probably 10 minutes not moving because she was so exhausted. It showed what heart they have.
Mannino: I came out five minutes into the game. I felt terrible.
Toohey: Our team right then said, "No, we're good. We're going to do something." It carried over into this most-recent season, too, that mindset of, you know, even if we lose, it doesn't matter.
Hein: I specifically remember Haley saying that it wasn't going to be a negative turning point in our season. We were going to use it as a positive. We met our goal of winning six of our first eight games, and we have this ability to build off these losses moving forward.
Every season has a turning point -- for better or worse -- and that Long Beach State match was it. They returned to the U-M Soccer Stadium to play Butler in the next match and beat the Bulldogs, 3-0, to start a 10-match unbeaten streak that spanned from Sept.7 to Oct. 14. One of the more memorable moments during that run was a dramatic overtime victory over in-state rival Michigan State on Oct. 10, a team Michigan hadn't beaten in nine years.
Hein: That was an awesome moment. That picture [of Emily Jaffe after she scored the game-winner in overtime] is amazing.
McCombs: That picture is what I think about most when I think about junior year. Clare has repeatedly shown us that picture. She put it on all of our lockers.
Hein: "Hope you have many more moments like these this season."
Stachel: I put something in their lockers before every game. I wanted them to remember the great moments that happened before and the work it took to get there.
McCombs: And if anyone was to score, I'm so glad Jaffe did.
Emily Jaffe (U-M Midfielder, 2011-12): When Greg told me I was going in; I just remember how badly I wanted to make a difference. We deserved to win.
Ryan: For Emily, a senior who's from Ann Arbor, to go sailing up in the air and score the winning goal in overtime, it was a beautiful moment and gave us the boost we needed. I think it was difficult for Michigan State, too, after that one. It was the game.
Ordonez: That was a major moment for us. It had been so many years since we beat them that to finally do it really put things into perspective. It showed us what we could do if we all worked hard.
Jaffe: Shelina had that corner, and you know 99 percent of them are perfect. As a player, you have to get in on the ball. I don't jump all that high, but there, I jumped as high as I could. When it went in, I was in shock, and you can see that in some of those photos. Everyone's eyes were blurred over. We were all celebrating. It was the best.
Zadorsky: It was so cool to learn about the rivalry. It's a distant subject, obviously, coming from Canada. I really just got so involved with it, and Clare was such a big contributor to that. She truly, full-heartedly believed in Michigan and just to beat them in that fashion -- at home, in overtime -- was unbelievable.
Michigan stumbled a bit down the stretch, going 0-2-1 in its last three matches but still looked in good shape for an NCAA Tournament berth. A win in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament against Wisconsin on Halloween all but sealed it.
McCombs: I know that Wisconsin game is basically what got us in the NCAA Tournament.
Ryan: I really felt strongly that if we were to beat Wisconsin, we were in for sure. If we didn't beat them, it was going to the committee, and it was going to be a tossup. I was more nervous about that game than any other game during the year.
Zadorsky: And we played well.
McCombs: The second half, we really took it to them.
Hein: That was a fun game. The picture of me and Shelina was at the beginning of every pre-game meal this year.
Zadorsky: Then we lost to Ohio State in the next game.
Ryan: I think we had some bad calls against us on that day, which created goals for Ohio State, but in some respects, it didn't matter. We were going on to the NCAA Tournament. We had bigger things to do. Let's go home and let's get ready.
Hein: The Big Ten Tournament was fun. I know that was our first one in a while as a program. I think it was a cool experience. I didn't realize what it was all about.
McCombs: It fueled our fire for the NCAA Tournament. You lose, and it's a reality check. It's one-and-done. The NCAA Tournament is the same way. It got me even more fired up to play after having a week off from playing.
The first round of the NCAA Tournament came on Nov. 10 vs. Central Michigan at U-M Soccer Stadium. The Wolverines found themselves in a hole early, as the Chippewas scored a little more than two minutes into the match off a long throw-in. As the match went on, Michigan was unable to capitalize on its chances. With under a minute to play in the match and things looking grim, Chloe Sosenko crossed a long ball in to Clare Stachel, whose header attempt lofted into the top-left corner of the net, giving Michigan the equalizing goal it needed and sending the match to overtime. Four minutes and 58 seconds into overtime, Ezurike scored to send Michigan to the second round.
Hein: Do you remember that goal? The one they scored on us?
McCombs: It was early in the first half. It was a bad goal.
Toohey: It was off a long throw-in. It bounced past our defenders, and someone tapped it in.
McCombs: I think we were so wound up. We all had this adrenaline rush. The start to that game was so chaotic.
Toohey: And those teams are hard to play against. They really are. They were a hard-working team.
McCombs: I think Nkem hit part of the goal but the net.
Toohey: I never thought we were going to lose, though. I swear. Looking up, you see there are 40 seconds left, and you think, "No, this isn't happening," like, "No, it's not going to be over."
Pace: I remember looking down to the Central Michigan bench and see one of their coaches turning towards the stands waving his arms trying to pump up the crowd. I sat there thinking, "Wow, our season is over."
Ezurike: I remember thinking the last couple of minutes, "This needs to happen now."
Chambers-Garcia: I was up top with Nkem, and I was slide tackling defenders as a forward and going in hard. We had to keep the ball up here.
Ryan: I kept looking up at the shots on the scoreboard ,and we were all over them. Felt like one of those days where you're the better team, but in soccer, you have to have that breakthrough goal. We got it with 40 seconds to go in the game from one of the most unlikely sources in the world.
Mannino: There was nobody better to score than Clare.
Stachel: Heck of a time to score a goal. I hate heading the ball. I'm not good at it. Greg made fun of me all the time because I'm not good at it. Honestly, I'm not sure how it happened.
Ryan: Chloe Sosenko, who planned to go to Central Michigan but decided to come here after their coach left, crosses the perfect ball into a player who I don't believe ever scored a header goal in her life. She flicks the ball on -- she wasn't heading it on frame but flicking it on -- and it hits the upper corner and goes in. I wasn't sure it went in, honestly. Then little Chloe turns to the Central Michigan bench, who had been taunting her the whole game and gave a little smile. It was like a ballerina celebrating her performance.
Chloe Sosenko (U-M Defender, 2011-13): It's funny. Even during the game, I was so calm. I just had this feeling that we were going to score, even with a minute left. I heard [their bench] yelling, "Traitor! Traitor!" the whole game. As soon as we scored, my arms shot up. I also knew my mom was going to be mad at me for that.
McCombs: It was rejuvenating for Clare because she was struggling with a lot of different things all season. She peaked at perfect time. She scored that goal and just killed it in the NCAA Tournament.
Mannino: After we scored that goal, we had the momentum.
Ryan: At 1-1 at that point, the game had turned.
Ezurike: It was more like, "Okay, we don't usually get second chances like this."
Hein: "We're not losing this game."
Ezurike: I remember Jaffe getting the ball, and I was like, "GO, JAFFE! GO!"
McCombs: She took on like the entire team.
Hein: I kept thinking, "When is she going to shoot? When is she going to shoot?"
Jaffe: You have to credit other people. Nkem was in the right spot. If I hadn't found the ball, she would've been open for a pass. What makes Nkem such a great player is that she's always ready to score.
Ezurike: I think I ran past Jaffe.
McCombs: And then did a loop?
Hein: Classic Nkem, once again, not running to anyone. Sometimes I wish I could be in her mind when she scores a goal.
Toohey: I think it's probably funnier to be in there when she misses a goal.
Zadorsky: What's fun sometimes is Holly and I get time to just watch Nkem, too, "Oh, yep, great shot," while we're just walking around back there.
Hein: You would turn to me and be like, "We need to score," and I'd be like, "Yeah, we do." Shelina would say something like that and then go put in the perfect ball, and we would score a goal. See? We just needed to move her up.
Following that win, Michigan went back to State College, Pa., to take on No. 24 Portland in the second round. Maybe the long travel hurt the Pilots, as the Wolverines coasted to a 3-0 victory to make the Sweet 16 and earn a rematch against No. 4 Penn State, a team they had tied on the same field a month prior. Like the last time, Michigan went up 1-0 in the contest on a penalty kick from Stachel, but Penn State answered late in the first half to knot up the score. The Wolverine defense -- Kopmeyer in particular -- fended off numerous scoring opportunities from the Nittany Lions in the closing minutes and in overtime, sending the match to penalty kicks. The Wolverines were up 2-0 in PKs and looked like the Elite Eight was next, but things quickly unraveled. The next three Michigan shooters -- including Zadorsky and Hein -- missed their chances, and Penn State made all three, eliminating the Wolverines in crushing fashion and cutting an otherwise magical season short.
Zadorsky: Haley played out of her mind. I almost felt guilty.
Kopmeyer: I loved playing Penn State. If there was one team I enjoyed playing, it was them. As a goalkeeper, you're not always called upon to do a whole lot. That's not the case when you play Penn State. Somebody has to step up big.
Sosenko: I think after that Portland win, we were all like, "Okay, we can do this." Going into Penn State, we know who they are. We know everything about them. I think we know how tall each player is. The way Haley played; it was like déjà vu from the first time we played them. She played the game of her life. Seeing a senior exhibit that much energy to try and win made you want to play that much harder.
Ryan: The number of quality players they had on that team that are or will play in the pros is outrageous. Maya Hayes is one, but the best player to have played in the Big Ten over the last decade was Christine Nairn. I remember Haley making a ridiculous save on her. She hit a ball from maybe 40 yards out, on a rope, headed for the corner. Any shot from 40 yards out, you have to think it's going to be saved because nobody can shoot from that far. As soon as she hit it, I was like, "Oh my God. That's going in." It was a rocket. Haley goes sideways and tips it around the bar. I thought there was no way. That save gave me hope.
McCombs: I remember laughing at one point because she made a volleyball spike save. The ball is going over her head, and she literally jumps and spikes it down.
Chambers-Garcia: We all thought that was so funny because her entire family plays volleyball.
Kopmeyer: We were up 2-0 halfway through PKs, and I thought we had it in the bag.
Stachel: When Haley made those first two saves, I literally remember thinking, "We're going to the Elite Eight." There was no way we were going to screw it up.
Mannino: The ending, though, was heartbreaking, especially for the seniors, being so close. We easily could have won that game.
Hein: I felt the biggest letdown ever. My last PK, I don't think I said anything to anyone. I came home and watched the video and asked myself, "What did I do with that PK?" You see on the video, I'm standing there, and the entire Penn State team rushed right by me to their goalkeeper to celebrate. It was hard because you wanted to win for people like Haley and Clare and Emily, who had done so much for us.
Ezurike: I think that's why I felt so bad after that game. They're done. You couldn't do anything else to help keep their season going.