The Class That Changed a Program: Part Four
MGOBLUE Celebration after Sweet 16 win
MGOBLUE
Celebration after Sweet 16 win
MGOBLUE

Dec. 12, 2013

This is the fourth entry in a five-part series, a written account of their four-year tenure, straight from the players themselves. Today, the SENIOR season.

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The shootout loss to Penn State in the NCAA Tournament left a bad taste, but there was optimism for the future. Nine starters returned off that squad and with another strong freshman class coming in, Michigan was primed for another strong season.

Meghan Toohey: The fact that we went to PKs with a team that went to the national championship showed that we could play with them. I thought about it all offseason.

Kayla Mannino: Sort of like, "Look who we can compete with."

Christina Ordonez (U-M Midfielder, 2012-13): Everyone -- not just the seniors -- was no longer satisfied with just making it. Why would we settle for something less when we know we can accomplish more?

Toohey: I took a little bit of time mentally. We watched the College Cup together thinking, "We could be there next year. We're going to be better next year."

Nkem Ezurike: If Penn State can make it there, we have the ability to make it there, too. We were so close.

Greg Ryan (Head Coach): We talked about the fact that it isn't just about talent anymore. You have to have talent, but it's about performance. Our whole focus was on performance and taking it one game at a time.

Madisson Lewis (U-M Forward, 2013): Coming in, it felt like they had unfinished business. There was an extra intensity during the preseason. Right from the start, they told us that we were in it for the long run. We had several meetings throughout the preseason where we made all our goals. There was pressure, but we put it on ourselves. They needed us to recognize it, and we did. Their goals were our goals.

The Wolverines rolled through the non-conference slate, which included two wins over ranked teams (No. 21 San Diego State, No. 22 Pepperdine) and an overtime victory over Eastern Michigan. The lone setback came in the team's only road match -- which didn't come until Sept. 15 -- a 1-0 loss at Butler.

Shelina Zadorsky: Eastern Michigan. That was challenging.

Holly Hein: It was just like the Central Michigan game the year before. We always have this goal of being the best team in the state of Michigan, and those teams always play you for it.

Ryan: Eastern Michigan was a great game. I've got to tell you, I hate playing those guys because they always play their best game against us. I thought they were wonderful in the second half.

Zadorsky: You don't remember [the goal], Nkem?

Ezurike: Was it a curvy one?

Zadorsky: It was a cross shot. We had a lot of those this year.

Shelby Chambers-Garcia: [Christina] Ordonez had a couple of them.

Ordonez: At that point, we were trying to do whatever we could to get the ball into the net. Whether it was a cross or a shot, so be it. It might have been lucky.

Tori McCombs: People would be like, "Did you plan that?" and I'd say, "Oh yeah, totally."

Toohey: That Butler game just really upset me. After that, our team had this mantra that we weren't going to lose to a team we shouldn't lose to anymore. I feel like that's how everyone walked away from that game. This wasn't happening again.

Hein: I think it was very similar to the California trip the year before. It happened. I couldn't tell you why. If we play that game 100 times, I think we win it 99 times, but we had to move on. That was an interesting time, too, because we were moving into the Big Ten season. We couldn't let it affect us.

Zadorsky: It showed how important it was going to be to score goals in the Big Ten. You have to know how to get up on teams, and we did that so well from that point on.

Toohey: I'm sort of glad the underclassmen got to feel it, though. Winning isn't as easy as it was coming for us. Going into Big Tens, it was going to be hard.

Lewis: It was a setback, but we needed it. Going into the conference schedule undefeated sets you up to lose at some point. I think getting that loss out of the way helped us. We were able to regroup.

Ryan: Maybe losing to Butler was a blessing in disguise because it taught us some things about teams that will sit in on us, sit back, counter and how to deal with it.

Chloe Sosenko (U-M Defender, 2011-13): I agree with Madi. In a way, we needed that loss. Greg said it was going to happen sometime. We'd rather have it happen then as opposed to Penn State or Ohio State.

McCombs: Before that, we were winning by multiple goals. That was the first time where we didn't score yet. It was a wake-up call for sure.

Zadorsky & Mannino
Left: Shelina Zadorsky; Right: Kayla Mannino

With Big Ten play beginning the following week, that loss seemed to re-focus the squad. After winning the opener at Iowa, Michigan came back home but went winless (0-1-1) in its first two-game weekend of Big Ten play, the latter of which was a frustrating 1-0 loss to Minnesota. It was another wake-up call.

McCombs: I wish we could have that whole weekend back.

Hein: If there was one game I could have back all year, it as that Minnesota game.

Lewis: The feelings after Minnesota were different than they were after Butler. There was more anger. We knew we needed to go out and win every other game or we wouldn't even have a shot at the Big Ten championship.

Ezurike: At that point, after those games, I realized that we can still play well, but we needed to bring something else. It wasn't just enough to play well.

Ryan: The leadership of this team was so critical to dealing with moments like those. It's like they had their hands on the wheel and knew how to drive it.

Zadorsky: The conversation was, "What are you going to do to give more to this team?" Like Nkem said, playing well at this point wasn't enough. You have to find something else you can give to this team to make sure we win.

Toohey: I remember us talking and realistically saying that we have to win out to even have a shot at Big Tens, and I thought, "Wow, that's ridiculously challenging," but it was reality. We took it one game at a time, but in hindsight, it's crazy that we did that.

Ryan: I said, "We can go on a run and win eight games straight, but you only go on a run by winning that first game. Let's not talk about runs. Let's talk about how we're going to win the next game." From that point on, that was the focus of each and every discussion for the rest of the season. You could tell they truly bought into that.

Things didn't get any easier, as five of the last eight were away from Ann Arbor, including three in a row at Michigan State, at No. 23 Nebraska and at No. 11 Penn State, all in a 10-day stretch. After beating the Spartans and Cornhuskers, Michigan traveled back to State College, Pa., looking for redemption after last year's heartbreaking ending. McCombs scored the only goal of the match -- assisted by Ezurike -- in a 1-0 win. It was one of the biggest wins in the history of the program; as it was U-M's first-ever win in State College and its first win over Penn State in a decade.

McCombs: The first 10 minutes of the Michigan State game, I don't think I've ever seen our team play so well. I was in the middle and looking at the passes we were making, how we were connecting and how our defense was swinging the ball. It was incredible.

Chambers-Garcia: It was the soccer we had wanted to play since we started.

Mannino: That's what we had been stressing, too, going out hard from the beginning, and I think we did that real well.

Hein: We come off what was one of our worst weekends and now we've got to play a rival and play the team that's at the top of the Big Ten -- both on the road. It was challenging.

Ezurike: That was a long couple of weeks.

Mccombs: I think that just goes to show how dedicated our coaching staff was at preparing us. They were the only ones who were capable of figuring out the system.

Ryan: Early on at Penn State, they had two or three great chances that if they put away, it was done, but Tori scores the goal and goes absolutely crazy. And she didn't just push it in. She buried it. I thought the net was coming off.

McCombs: I was an emotional wreck after that one.

Hein: I would have gone through another ACL tear and cancer or whatever to have that feeling again after winning on their field.

Ezurike: I remember everyone being so happy. You couldn't say anything to bring anyone down at that point.

McCombs: How long were the last five minutes of that game, though?

Hein: That was a 'Shelina yelling at me' moment. She said, "Holly, there's five seconds left!" and I was like, "We freaking won!"

Zadorsky: No! Wait! Everyone was celebrating with like seven seconds left. I am freaking out because they had a throw-in. You never know!

Ezurike: I ran back and stood next to Chloe [Sosenko] on defense. I was like, "Look Chloe! I'm fronting!"

Sosenko: I remember looking up expecting to see Madi and there was Nkem and I was like, "Nkem?" I think she put in a tackle to send the ball out of bounds for a throw-in. It was awesome to see everyone in the back helping out.

McCombs: I look over and see Nkem and I'm like, "What are you doing back here?" The Penn State girl I was marking and running next to thought I was insane. Literally, I'd be like "Oh my God! Oh my God! Dear God! There are four minutes left!" I was saying this to myself, but I was looking at her. She would look at me like I was the weirdest human being.

Zadorsky: We did everything we possibly could to win that game.

Mannino: The last three minutes or so, I think we had nine girls on defense.

Zadorsky: I think they were falling apart a little bit. We had momentum. When the clock hit 0:00, we all freaked out.

Ryan: The Penn State kids had to walk by our bench when they were leaving the field. One of their players said in their school paper earlier that week that they were going to make a statement against Michigan. When they walked off the field and no statement was made, I don't think I've ever seen kids so angry in my life.

Pink Game vs. Purdue
Left: Nkem Ezurike breaks U-M goal record; Right: Tori McCombs against Purdue

After wins over Indiana, Purdue, Illinois and Northwestern, Michigan entered the final weekend of play with an outside chance at sharing or winning the Big Ten title outright. If Nebraska lost or tied against Indiana and Michigan beat Ohio State, it would get its first Big Ten title.

McCombs: Illinois was so stressful. We knew they were a good team. We knew we had to win. Illinois has always given us a good game. We killed it that weekend and did what we could do.

Zadorsky: We stepped off the field at Northwestern after a solid win, and we felt like we lost because we found out Nebraska beat Penn State in overtime. I feel like we were doing everything we could that was in our hands.

Ordonez: On the field, we all had this hope that Penn State would end up beating them. When we found out Nebraska won, it was a little disheartening. We were bummed, but we quickly realized that we had bigger things ahead of us.

McCombs: It's the worst feeling being out of control of your own destiny.

Hein: I don't think I've ever been so in tune to what was happening around the Big Ten every week. We were so close to achieving that goal.

Toohey: The whole time, I think it was more of a positive. You have to win to be able to care about that stuff after the game. Control what you can control rather than what you can't.

It wasn't meant to be, though, as the Huskers won, 3-0, to win the title outright. With the Big Ten regular-season title gone, the seniors still found something to play for and that was a win over the one team that they'd never beaten -- Ohio State. It was also Senior Night at U-M Soccer Stadium.

Toohey: Nebraska played Friday, and we played Ohio State on Saturday. We knew there was no way we could win, but we still played so well.

Ezurike: It was also Ohio State.

Chambers-Garcia: And Senior Night.

Ryan: The first time they played Ohio State, they will all tell you that we got our heads handed to us. They won 2-0. It was the first Big Ten game they had ever played in, and Ohio State played us off the park. Our kids' eyeballs looked like saucers. They walked off the field that day not previously having known that there were teams that could play like that.

McCombs: How awesome was it that we beat every team in the Big Ten?

Hein: I wish it had been every team in the Big Ten in the same season. Playing in our stadium, though, that's one of the things I'll miss most about being here. My freshman year, it was grass, and that was it. It has grown so much. It means a lot, especially to all the people that came to our games.

McCombs: After our sophomore season, they put up achievements on the wall behind one of the goals, NCAA appearances, Big Ten championships, etc. I remember looking at the men's side, and they had so many more than us. I looked at ours and felt we needed to add to it. It's so cool that they're putting up another year under the Elite Eight side next year.

Ryan: The only other time I beat Ohio State was in my first year and to this day, I still don't know how we did it. They had always been the one step, the one player, the one break better than us. We played one of our best games of the year against them.

Toohey & Chambers-Garcia
Left: Meghan Toohey against Ohio State; Right: Shelby Chambers-Garcia against Ohio State

Michigan was the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and was slated to face Iowa in the first round. Terrible weather conditions forced a change in venue the night before the matches, from a wider grass field to a less-suitable, smaller turf field. The Wolverines had more possession but couldn't generate any offense on the slick field, losing the match, 1-0. The loss left a sour taste in the mouths of the seniors who badly wanted a trophy after just barely missing out of the Big Ten regular-season title. But, the silver lining was that the loss gave the team ample opportunity to rest and recover in advance of the NCAA Tournament.

McCombs: It was like a lacrosse field.

Chambers-Garcia: With our team, I wasn't too worried about it because we had a fast team.

Zadorsky: I didn't worry about it until we started. I felt like, "We'll get over this. No big deal. We're going to win the Big Ten Tournament." Once we really got into the game, it was so congested. It didn't flow.

Chambers-Garcia: It didn't feel right. I don't think it was the surface necessarily but the size of the field.

McCombs: It didn't fit our style of play. For us, that's our speed and our counter. With the size of the field, we didn't have the ability do to that at our fullest.

Zadorsky: They had 11 people on one half of the field at times, and we were trying to break through that.

Toohey: It was also the team we were playing that day. It was everything that was not in our favor.

Hein: The weather was tough, too. It was a weird day.

Toohey: There were a lot of positives that came out of that. We didn't win a Big Ten championship but we got 10 days of rest going into the NCAA Tournament. That was a huge factor.

Chambers-Garcia: It opened our underclassmen's eyes, the freshmen and sophomores. Potentially, that could have been it, you know? Not in that particular instance because we knew we were going to be in it, but it just goes to show that one game and you can be done. It really opened their eyes.

Hein: Credit to Iowa, too, for playing a really good game. It wasn't a great way to end your Big Ten experience, but it was a learning point. You never take a loss negatively.

Zadorsky: I think our underclassmen saw one of our dreams get crushed.

Mannino: It was hard because we talked about it so much, winning a Big Ten championship.

Lewis: They didn't even talk to us after. We couldn't relate to them. We're just freshmen. We have three more years. They wouldn't have another chance to win a Big Ten title.

Zadorsky: They really rallied to us. They did all season, but from that point on, the younger players were ready to do whatever it took to win, not for us, but for this whole team.

McCombs: That, for me, was my biggest reality check. It was our senior year, filled with lots of lasts. After that game, it hurt. I felt like I got dumped.

Chambers-Garcia: We always say that, you know, we want to make it far, but we saw the reality that we could have won it, and that's the thing that hurts the most. I pictured it. It wasn't a dream or a goal. We could have won. It still gets me.

McCombs: There was never a second where I didn't think we couldn't win it.

Chambers-Garcia: Not a chance.

The Wolverines were the No. 3 seed in the first region and defeated Milwaukee, 4-0, in a rematch of the two teams' season opener. And thanks to an upset -- No. 2 seed Marquette lost to Western Michigan in the first round, Michigan was chosen to host the second and third rounds in Ann Arbor for only the second time ever. Using the home field as an advantage, U-M beat Illinois State, 3-0, in the second round before setting up a titanic showdown with No. 23 Notre Dame in the Sweet 16 in what was the two teams' first meeting in five seasons. Toohey scored on a second-half penalty kick to push Michigan through to the Elite Eight for the second time in program history.

Toohey: It was a different level of emotion and intensity. As soon as you start NCAAs, it's present. That's the best way I can describe it. It's evident from the first game. I forget who I was telling this to. My vision is only straight. The only thing I can think about is what's going on at that moment on the field. It only happens in NCAA games.

McCombs: One of my favorite games was that Notre Dame game. We played on an ice rink.

Hein: That was ridiculous.

Ryan: It was almost comical to watch the players trying to run out there. We didn't know what shoes to tell them to wear. I'm telling you, golf cleats might have been the only thing that would've worked that day.

Ezurike: I was on my tiptoes for the first 30 minutes of that game.

McCombs: The rest of the field defrosted, but Toohey and I were on the ice rink in the middle of the field the entire time.

Toohey: I ate it one time. Turned to cut and WHOOSH!

McCombs: It's funny. It didn't bother us at all.

Zadorsky: Winning that game was huge for us.

Chambers-Garcia: That was my Penn State celebration. I jumped into Kayla's arms. I was out the whole tournament. I remember going up to Kayla and was like, "You did it!"

Ezurike: Because it was Notre Dame made it so much better. It was like Penn State. We were so close for many years, so to finally be able to beat them was so great.

Ryan: That whole game, if you look at it, we had the best chances by far. Nkem was in on the goalkeeper three or four times. Kaela Little (Notre Dame's goalkeeper) had the game of her life. She was absolutely outstanding, but when Nkem has that many good chances, usually you're talking three or four goals. We're up 1-0, miss a penalty and you're thinking, "Okay. This game could be 5-0 right now, but here we are in 1-0 game." But I was never worried because our defense was so sound. They locked everything down.

Hein: Throwing it back a little bit. I came on my official visit the weekend after they lost to Notre Dame, 7-0, in Greg's first game back in 2008. That opened eyes for me. It was like, "Whoa, I'm going to Michigan." It's a cool feeling knowing that we've come a long way as a program.

Zadorsky: Especially for our coaches. It had to be awesome, knowing that they bridged that gap in five years.

McCombs: You can even see how emotional they were after that game. I've never seen Greg that emotional after a win. This was different.

Zadorsky: The support from outside our team was amazing: alumni, family, friends, media and other sports here at Michigan. That made our experience even better, knowing the support we had.

Hein: That was one of the cooler moments of my career. We were all so excited. It was a tough game and conditions were far from perfect but to go over to our sideline and sing to our fans like we do after every win was so cool.

McCombs: That's the last time we got to sing "Hail to the Victors" at our stadium and to have it come after we beat Notre Dame is something really cool and something I won't forget.

Notre Dame
Left: Holly Hein against Notre Dame; Right: Singing The Victors after beating Notre Dame

That victory earned Michigan a trip to Charlottesville, Va., to take on the tournament's overall No. 1 seed in Virginia. The Cavaliers presented an incredible challenge, entering the game with a 23-1-0 record and the No. 1 scoring offense in the country headlined by U.S. Women's National Teamer Morgan Brian. After she scored to put the Cavaliers up 1-0 in the 23rd minute, Ezurike and Toohey connected for the equalizer nearly four minutes later. Virginia controlled possession for the most of the game and had the edge in shots, 22-4, but the Wolverines repelled nearly every chance until the Cavaliers scored the eventual game-winner in the 68th minute to advance to the College Cup, ending Michigan's dream season.

Chambers-Garcia: They are a beautiful soccer team. Very respectable.

Zadorsky: I agree. They were very classy.

Ezurike: For me, going into that game, I wasn't scared or nervous. I looked at it as a challenge, just to see where we were against one of the best team in the country.

McCombs: And we competed.

Ezurike: That's why I wasn't scared. I don't think our team was scared, either. We were excited to see where we stacked up.

Toohey: We were ranked pretty much all season. That was one of the only instances that we played a team that was ranked higher than us.

Hein: I agree with Nkem. It was a challenge. We played all year in the Big Ten, but now we're going to play a team that's really good. I was just confident in our team. We were back in a familiar position of being an underdog. The one thing I would say is that it was weird being down there beforehand for as long as we were because it was just building every day. I was like, "Can we just play already?"

Mannino: It was the longest week ever. We got stir crazy.

Zadorsky: It was hard to control your emotions because you're really just so excited to play. We weren't scared. We were excited to play the best team in the nation. Even if you did have doubts, they faded so quickly. The whole team was on the same page.

Ezurike: The coaching staff was, too. To be able to have your staff share the same feelings, that you can go out and win, it made it so much better.

Ryan: If you give everything you have, it doesn't matter if you make some mistakes. You can walk off proud with your head up. I thought we competed very well. They were better at what they do and on that day, we were awfully good at what we do, which is shut teams down and look for opportunities going the other way.

McCombs: After the game, I was more touched about the emotions around me. It didn't hit me that it was my last game. Seeing how many people were upset for us just shows how amazing this team is.

Mannino: I was so emotional afterwards because I was going to miss everyone. It wasn't because we lost.

Zadorsky: That's what we said. We aren't in tears because we lost to Virginia. We were in tears because that's the last game that we're going to play with this year's team, this core of people that accomplished special things. It was sad to see our run end.

Ryan: Jen Pace is a kid that gets it. She said, "I'm not sad we lost to the No. 1 team in the country. I'm just sorry we can't play together anymore," and I think that was the consensus throughout the team.

Lewis: I remember Nicky [Waldeck] saying, "Are we ever going to see you again?" and everyone started laughing. They still go to school here.

Toohey: I remember looking around. Everyone gave everything they had. I was proud of this team. We did so well. We could've won. I truly think we could've won. I walked away from my last game proud of everything that we did.

» Tomorrow: Final Thoughts
» Wednesday: Junior Year (2012)
» Tuesday: Sophomore Year (2011)
» Monday: Freshman Year (2010)


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