Michigan women's soccer gets back to having fun, takes aim at national title
There have been two mottos for this season's Michigan women's soccer team: In pursuit, and fun and trophies.
It's the last one that has resonated most, and while it seems simple enough, you'll have to excuse the Wolverines if they've occasionally forgot to have fun.
The 2020 season, after all, was a mighty mess, in which they only played 11 matches, and saw their season shut down during the Big Ten tournament because of COVID-19.
"It was definitely a response to that," senior midfielder Raleigh Loughman said. "Every team struggled with different things with the COVID spring, and COVID.
"We really wanted to get back to having fun. When you have fun, the trophies come."
So far, the story checks out for Michigan (18-3-3), which is gearing up to play No. 1-ranked Florida State at 2 p.m. Friday in the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals.
The Wolverines are coming off the program's fourth Big Ten tournament championship, first since 1999, and have been nearly perfect during their NCAA Tournament run — not allowing a goal in the first three matches, against Bowling Green, Wake Forest and Tennessee. Michigan hasn't allowed a goal since the Big Ten semifinals, a span of 366 minutes.
Michigan is in the quarterfinals for the first time since 2013.
Michigan now is three wins away from the program's first national championship.
"I think when you start the season and you look what you have on paper, you think, man, you definitely have the talent to do something, and I felt that we had some experiences in 2019 and most players from that roster were returning — it could work," fourth-year head coach Jennifer Klein said.
"But you really don't know until you get in."
Michigan returned all 11 starters from a season ago, and many from the 2019 team that made the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16. Several seniors elected to take the free COVID season to return for 2021.
Among the headliners are Loughman, Big Ten offensive player of the Big Ten tournament, and graduate-student defender Alia Martin, the defensive player of the Big Ten tournament. They both were first-team All-Big Ten, Martin for a third time.
Senior midfielders Nicki Hernandez and Sarah Stratigakis were second-team. Midfielder Avery Kalitta was named to the all-freshman team.
Senior goalkeeper Hillary Beall, Martin, Stratigakis and Hernandez are Michigan's fifth-year players, along with Izzy Nino, a backup goalkeeper.
Michigan had the pieces, in other words, but not everything went smoothly. A four-game road trip — unheard of in soccer, but necessitated by an earlier rainout — in late September and early October proved troubling. Most notably, Michigan lost at Rutgers, 4-1. That followed a 0-0 tie at Indiana. It was the low point of the season, on the score sheet and mentally.
"There was a lot of mental fatigue," Martin said. "I think it was almost like a shock to the system. It was definitely a wakeup call, to learn how to put together a 90-minute game. That is a game that we needed."
In the wake of that defeat, players called a meeting, and eventually met with the coaches, too.
The message: Remember to have some fun, and be grateful for even to be playing — which is something that wasn't always the case a year earlier, especially at the end.
"We just kind of had a mental shift," Loughman said. "We realized, No. 1, we were lucky to be playing and playing at Michigan, and we needed to be representing the school in a way we can. And we also wanted to have fun with it.
"We kind of forgot about the fun midway through the season.
"We kind of got back to it."
Indeed. After the Rutgers loss, Michigan has won 10 of its last 11 matches, including beating formidable Penn State twice in a season for the first time in the program's history. It beat No. 4 Rutgers, 1-0, in the Big Ten championship match.
It's allowed six goals in that span.
The Wolverines found their confidence, and haven't let go.
"We can compete," said Klein, "with anybody."
That notion is about to be put to the ultimate test in Florida State, on the Seminoles' home turf.
Florida State won the ACC tournament, beating regular-season champion Virginia in the final. The Seminoles rank second in the nation in scoring offense and third in total goals, led by sophomore forward Beata Olsson, who had 13 goals.
Florida State has two national championships (2018, 2014) and two national runner-up showings (2020, 2013) in the last decade.
Michigan has never even been to the College Cup, or soccer's Final Four.
Now, that'd be fun.
"I was just talking to Raleigh earlier today," Martin said Tuesday. "We know it's gonna be the game of a lifetime, and we know they're the No. 1 seed. We are more excited than anything to have the opportunity to play them.
"We believe in this team, and we believe that we can beat them."
NCAA WOMEN'S SOCCER TOURNAMENT
No. 9 Michigan vs. No. 1 Florida State
► When: 2 p.m. Friday
► Where: The Seminole Soccer Complex, Tallahassee, Fla.
► Records: Michigan 18-3-3; Florida State 19-1-2
► At stake: A spot in the national semifinals