Nkem Ezurike has a school-record 45 goals for Michigan. (Michigan Athletics)
In 2008, Greg Ryan was in his first season as Michigan women’s soccer coach and trying to find an identity for his team. The Wolverines were coming off a 3-9-6 record — the worst in school history — and Ryan needed to build a program.
Ryan, who was coming off a stint as the head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team, got a call from one of his assistants, who was scouting prospects in Canada.
“We were fortunate. My assistant coach first saw her at the Umbro Showcase in Toronto and said this was a player we’ve got to try and get,” Ryan recalled. “She was athletic, fast, strong, and scored goals.”
That player was Nkem Ezurike.
Ezurike, a senior captain, became Michigan’s career leader with her 45th goal, the game-winner, in last week’s match against Purdue.
Ezurike, from Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia, isn’t just about individual accomplishment; she also has the Wolverines in the hunt for the first Big Ten soccer championship in the 20-year history of the program.
U-M (12-2-1, 6-1-1 Big Ten) has a No. 10 national ranking and is in second place with three matches left — and poised to break Penn State’s stranglehold of 15 straight conference titles.
Getting Ezurike to Michigan, though, wasn’t an easy task for Ryan. Michigan didn’t have a stadium, nor the impressive history and record of many of the other top-tier programs that were recruiting Ezurike.
But Ryan had a plan. He made several trips to Canada to see her play at the Under-17 National Team training camp in Ontario and at the U17 World Cup in New Zealand.
“Had she not gone to the Umbro tournament or had not been on the U17 team, I would say that there’s a 100-percent chance we would have missed her coming out of Nova Scotia,” Ryan said.
Ezurike said she wasn’t sure she would come to the U.S. to play soccer, but when she heard Ryan’s sales pitch, she was on board — even without a new stadium.
“When I was thinking about coming here, Greg said the new stadium would be up by the time I got here,” Ezurike said. “With that and him saying where the program could go, that sold me on coming here.
“You have to have faith in what the coach is telling you, along with academically how strong Michigan is. All that combined sold me on it.”
In Ezurike’s freshman season in 2010, the Wolverines ended their string of three straight losing seasons, finishing with a 10-5-4 mark and making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006.
Ezurike scored a team-high nine goals that season, made the conference all-freshman team and was second-team All-Big Ten.
One of the more memorable goals in her career came in a match at Minnesota.
“They absolutely crushed us, but the score was still 0-0 in the second overtime and there was a minute or two left,” Ryan said. “Nkem gets it behind the defense and smashes one in the corner. It was their fan appreciation day and the fireworks went off after she scored.
“She’s running around the field and the whole team is chasing her trying to catch up to her. If you don’t have that player doing that, we don’t even make the NCAA Tournament in 2010. We never would have gotten there without goals like that from Nkem.”
But Ezurike plays down all the individual acclaim.
“I just do what I can to help the team,” she said. “It’s a reflection of the players we have -- me doing well and scoring goals.”
Among the elite
Even with Ryan’s experience on the international stage, Ezurike’s skills put her among the elite — including Abby Wambach.
“She’s one of the most complete soccer players I’ve ever coached,” Ryan said. “She’s not only good at scoring goals, she’s good at setting up her teammates for opportunities.
“How do you make Nkem better? You teach her how to head the ball properly — she doesn’t like heading the ball very much. She’s like the opposite of Abby Wambach, but they have a lot of similar qualities. She’s strong, she’s fast and she’s a great goal-scorer.
“Abby’s ability in the air is unsurpassed in the women’s game. If Nkem had that ability, she’d probably score 60 goals a year.”
With an unprecedented Big Ten title within reach, Ryan knows that he’ll need more than just Ezurike. A talented senior class that’s the backbone of what he calls the best team he’s had at Michigan will need to produce, as well.
“Everybody’s played a big part. The senior class has been the foundation and Nkem has been the player that just sets it apart,” he said.