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Michigan men's and women's soccer NCAA mission: Don't settle for seconds

Larry O'Connor
The Detroit News
Senior defender Abdou Samake played in the Montreal Impact Academy.

Ann Arbor — Michigan men’s and women’s soccer teams find themselves in the NCAA Tournament with the same goal — get past the second round and beyond — but each is using a different tack to achieve its mission.

It’s the first time in seven years both men’s and women’s teams are in the tournament.

The 19th-ranked Wolverines women’s side, which plays No. 15 Texas Tech at 3 p.m. Friday in Chapel Hill, N.C., has gotten this far by simply not getting rattled.

That sense of self-belief sustained UM through a nerve-wracking first-round encounter with Bowling Green last week.

After going down 1-0 to the Falcons at U-M Soccer Stadium, Jennifer Klein’s Wolverines (16-5-1) rallied in the second half on goals by Danielle Wolfe and Nicki Hernandez to advance 2-1.

“It’s just taking our game plan and staying with it,” said sophomore midfielder Meredith Haakenson, who is second in team scoring with nine goals and two assists.

Midfielder Meredith has nine goals and two assists as Michigan's second leading scorer.

Michigan men’s team forged its path to the NCAAs with a ziplock mentality.

Chaka Daley’s side has posted a program-record 10 shutouts this season with a 0.72 goals-against (15 goals yielded in 1861:57 minutes of play) while holding foes to a measly 7.25 shots a game.

The 13th-seed Wolverines (11-4-5), who earned a first-round bye, play either Notre Dame or Wright State Sunday at U-M Soccer Stadium (BTN). Kickoff is 1 p.m. Notre Dame hosts Wright State at 7 p.m. Thursday night.

UM is making its third straight NCAA appearance on Daley’s watch, the fourth since the Toronto native took over from Steve Burns as coach in 2012. The former defender previously coached at his alma mater Providence College for 12 years.

The team’s shot-strangling approach was fully engaged in Sunday’s Big Ten tournament title game against No. 8 Indiana, which the Hoosiers won 4-3 in a penalty kick shootout after the teams battled to a 0-0 stalemate. The Wolverines held the eight-time NCAA champions to a mere four shots over 120 minutes. 

For context, Indiana unleashed 22 attempts on goals in its Big Ten semifinal match 1-0 extra-time victory over defending NCAA champion Maryland.

Chaka Daley is in this eighth season as Michigan men's soccer coach.

“So, we’re very mindful of how our team is defending,” Daley said.

UM’s backline is anchored by senior Abdou Samake along with juniors Jackson Ragen, Joel Harrison and Austin Swiech (Jenison). Junior midfielder Marc Ybarra (Ann Arbor Skyline) works in concert with the back four to repel the opposition attack. 

“I think that's one of our strengths is actually everyone is communicating through the games and there's no one necessarily who feels like they have to have a bigger presence than anyone else,” said Samake, a native of Mali whose family moved to Montreal when he was 7.

Solid-state defending requires buy-in, which is why one of the team’s flashiest players says tracking back is constantly on his mind. 

Senior forward Jack Hallahan is second on the team in scoring with five goals and six assists. He’s known for a lethal left foot and being a wizard on the ball.

Junior goalkeeper Hillary Beall has started all 22 Michigan games and boasts a 0.84 goals-against average.

Hallahan’s free kick lifted Michigan to a 1-0 victory over Penn State in the Big Ten semifinals last week. The Redditch, England, native is hoping to be selected in the MLS SuperDraft in January.

“I was very attack-minded when I came into college soccer,” said Hallahan, who has British and Irish passports and represented the Republic of Ireland at the U-17, U-18 and U-19 levels.

“Chaka showed us the defensive side and, if I wasn’t doing my job, how we could lose easily. He’s a good voice in your head for those sort of times.”

UM men’s team maintained its rigid defensive posture despite losing senior goalkeeper Andrew Verdi to a leg injury against Wisconsin. Freshman Owen Finnerty (Walled Lake/Detroit Catholic Central), who played this summer with Detroit City FC, stepped in. The son of former Detroit Rockers netminder Bryan Finnerty is 4-0-1 with a 0.56 GAA, including two clean sheets.

“We felt he was prepared for some big moments,” Daley said.

The Wolverines women’s team also dealt with a few hiccups en route to the postseason. 

Jennifer Klein has the Wolverines in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in her second year as coach.

The team faced then 13th ranked Washington State on the road having lost two of its last three when things took a U-turn. Sarah Stratigakis and Haakenson scored in the first half and junior goalkeeper Hillary Beall made 12 saves in a 2-1 victory, which started a five-game unbeaten streak (4-0-1).

“We kind of just rallied together and wanted to get the ‘W’ and get out of there,” said Beall, a Laguna, Calif., native who was rated the No. 1 goalkeeper in the 2017 recruiting class by TopDrawerSoccer.com

UM (16-5-1, 8-2-1) finished third in the Big Ten regular-season standings and advanced to the conference tournament championship game, falling to Penn State 2-1 in overtime.

The jolt from Year 1 to 2 since Klein’s arrival from USC where she’d been an associate head coach has been seismic.

Last year, UM went 9-9-1, (5-5-1 Big Ten). The Wolverines are two wins shy of matching the program win record of 18 set in 2013.

Klein requires weekly leadership and culture meetings for players, who are assigned roles that extend beyond the touchline. She brought the concept from USC.

Beall was appointed team sheriff, “so I kind of just keep people in line and make sure we all do the right thing,” the 5-foot-11 goalkeeper said. Haakenson has been charged with being a peacemaker.

It's all about building character, which will serve in the long run to help put Michigan women's soccer in the national spotlight. 

“I think the big thing is believing in the process and every opportunity we get, every opportunity we have, it’s an opportunity for growth,” Klein said. 

loconnor@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @larryo1961

NCAA Tournament second round

WOMEN

No. 19 Michigan vs. No. 15 Texas Tech

Kickoff: 3 p.m. Friday, Dorrance Field, Chapel Hill, N.C.

Records: Michigan 16-5-1, Texas Tech 15-3-3

Outlook: Texas Tech advanced to the second round after downing Pepperdine 5-4 in a penalty kick shootout after the team finished in a 2-2 stalemate Nov. 15. The Michigan-Texas Tech winner advances to the third round Sunday to face either North Carolina or Colorado whose second-round match follows at 6 p.m.

MEN

Wright State-Notre Dame winner at Michigan

Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, U-M Soccer Stadium, Ann Arbor

Records: Michigan 11-4-5; Notre Dame 10-7-1; Wright State 10-8-3

Outlook: Michigan is riding a seven-match unbeaten streak (5-0-2). The winner of Sunday's second-round match advances to the third round, which takes place Nov. 30 or Dec. 1.