Large & In Charge – Canadian Nkem Ezurike Will Again Be One of The B10’s Most Imposing Forwards
ACC – Clemson | NC State
Big XII – Iowa State | Kansas | Oklahoma | TCU | Texas | Texas Tech
Big East – Cincinnati | DePaul | Pittsburgh | Providence | Rutgers | Seton Hall | South Florida | St. John’s (NY) | Syracuse | UConn | Villanova
Big Ten – Indiana | Iowa | Michigan State | Minnesota | Nebraska | Northwestern | Purdue | Wisconsin
Mid-Majors – Central Michigan | Denver | Florida Gulf Coast | Harvard | Illinois State | New Mexico | Rice | Richmond | Samford | Stephen F. Austin | Toledo | UMass | Utah State | Western Michigan
Pac-12 – Arizona | Arizona State | Cal | Colorado | Oregon | Oregon State | USC | Utah | Washington | Washington State
SEC – Alabama | Arkansas | LSU | Mississippi State | Ole Miss | Vanderbilt
WCC – BYU | Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | Portland | San Francisco | St. Mary’s (CA)
In a way, Michigan and head coach Greg Ryan were something of a perfect fit for each other. After 2007′s Women’s World Cup and a fateful goalkeeping selection decision that may be talked about until the end of time, Ryan’s reputation was conceivably at rock bottom as he hit the unemployment line. The Wolverines were doing little better in Ann Arbor. After a history of great success in the late nineties and early part of the new decade, Debbie Rademacher’s tenure had seen the Wolverines program rapidly zoom off a cliff towards the end of her reign, with the final season culminating in an abysmal 3-9-6 season.
It hadn’t always been that way though, and Rademacher had the Wolverines in rarefied air for much of her tenure. Though never able to break Penn State’s monopoly on the league title in the Big Ten, Michigan did claim a pair of Big Ten Tournament titles in 1997 and 1999 and were consistently in the NCAA Tournament for the better part of a decade. Michigan’s ascent peaked in 2002 with a run all the way to the Elite Eight before they were downed by Santa Clara on the doorstep of the College Cup. The following season was also a standout campaign for the Wolverines as they reached the Sweet Sixteen, buoyed by a second round win over Notre Dame in South Bend.
Things would begin to unravel on the Wolverines shortly thereafter. The Wolverines would be embarrassed the following season in the NCAA Tournament by minnows Detroit and would see their NCAA Tournament streak snapped the following season, marking the first time the program hadn’t made it to the Big Dance since 1996. There’d be one last gasp at glory the following season as Michigan got back to the NCAA Tournament but would be humbled again, this time on penalties by Wisconsin-Milwaukee. A year later, the Wolverines would hit their low point, and Rademacher was gone soon after.
The appointment of Ryan to the head job was an intriguing gamble but still a gamble nonetheless. Ryan had been spectacular at the helm of Wisconsin decades earlier and had had a very good season as the head man of SMU but had also been decidedly above average at Colorado College. The former USWNT boss had much to prove but also lacked the tools to do it in his first few seasons in Ann Arbor. Some may have wondered if Ryan may have bit off more than he could chew after a rock bottom finish in the league in 2008, followed by an eighth place finish in 2009.
But keen onlookers noticed Ryan assembling some real talent in the wings with his recruiting classes, leading some to believe that 2010 was the year where Michigan would begin to make its move back up the table. The Wolverines started out erratically, with some puzzling non-conference results leading into a tepid start to Big Ten play. Michigan would get it turned around in time though and rallied to a fifth place finish in the league and their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006 as one of the last teams in the field. Michigan would lead at the half against Oklahoma State in the first round of the Big Dance but would eventually be pegged back, seeing their upset bid thwarted by the Cowgirls.
Michigan’s awakening in 2010 had certainly raised expectations in Ann Arbor, and while few considered them title challengers in 2011, most felt that the Wolverines would be in the mix for another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Much of that confidence ebbed in the opener though, when Ryan’s Wolverines dropped a shocking decision at home to Akron. While the club would win their next four, it was hard to look at Michigan the same way given that first result. The club would face further setbacks with a 3-0 pounding to Pepperdine and a 1-1 draw to Central Michigan.
With the team’s best non-conference win a 1-0 victory over Western Michigan, the Wolverines’ NCAA Tournament hopes looked dim before league play started. Much of Michigan’s hopes likely depended on making it to the postseason and getting on a bit of a run, and things looked promising after a 3-1-1 start in the league. But the Wolverines fell apart in the second half of the Big Ten campaign, a 1-0 defeat to lowly Northwestern acting as the catalyst for a stretch in which Michigan won just one of their final six in the regular season.
It added up to an eighth place finish in the league, and due to the Big Ten’s archaic rules about the conference tournament host (Northwestern) getting an automatic bid to the event, the Wolverines were left at home. Though Michigan had still delivered their second winning season in a row, it was hard to not look at their year and see it as a big step back. After making so much progress in 2010, Ryan now faces a critical fifth year in charge of the Maize and Blue.
While it’s probably a bit hyperbolic to call it make or break for Ryan and co. in Ann Arbor this season, another year out of the postseason would not be the best of signs for this Wolverines program. Most took the club’s offense for granted going into next season, figuring a young and vibrant attacking core would lead the day, but Michigan struggled to put the ball in the back of the net, scoring just eleven goals in the league, third worst in the Big Ten. Canadian battering ram Nkem Ezurike got hers still with eleven goals and six assists, and Clare Stachel was a worthy second option, scoring five times.
The problem was, there was very little after that duo, with nobody else on the club scoring more than twice. Ironically, the defense, which was the far greater worry going into the new season ended up being a relative strong point, with the club finishing in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten, a decent result considering some of the rebuilding needed going into the season. Rebuilding can’t be on anyone’s mind going into 2012 though. Last season was an unfortunate interruption to the program’s previous upward arc, and another such blip could lead to some unease in Ann Arbor at the end of the year.
Former U.S. U18 international Haley Kopmeyer is set to begin her fourth and final season as the club’s starter in goal this season. A season after being injured very early in 2008, Kopmeyer shined as a redshirt freshman and has been a stalwart in between the pipes ever since. Though a bit under the radar reputation-wise as compared to some of the other keepers in the conference, Kopmeyer’s experience was invaluable last season as Ryan tinkered with the defense to help overcome offseason losses. With what looks like a little more settled unit in front of her this year, Kopmeyer could reach greater heights still.
There’s very little behind her. Sophomore Zaryn Jennings didn’t join until late October as a walk-on to provide cover, and she’ll battle with true freshman Maddie Clarfield for the understudy role, though neither figures to see extensive action with Kopmeyer around.
All things considered, this group held up rather well considering the amount of turnover before the 2011 season began. There should be less of that this year, with the loss of Kristen Goncalves being the most notable departure for the Wolverines. One of the last links to the Real Bad Days at the beginning of Ryan’s tenure in Ann Arbor, Goncalves moved into the starting lineup full-time as a sophomore and promptly stayed there the past two seasons for most of the year. Also gone is Kim Siebert, who had been a starter for the club as an underclassman but missed all of 2010 before coming back and making five starts and eight more appearances off the bench last year.
Heading up this unit this year is Canadian junior Shelina Zadorsky. Captain of her nation’s U20 team, Zadorsky came into the club with high expectations and has certainly been a key member of the Wolverines to this point, starting nineteen games in each of her two seasons thus far and adding three assists as a rookie in 2010. Like a few of her teammates though, Zadorsky will likely be missing for the first month of the season through the U20 World Cup and could be a big loss for Michigan.
With her absence, Michigan figures to look towards classmate Tori McCombs for a bit of stability in defense. McCombs is one of the most versatile players in the Big Ten and can play anywhere on the pitch. McCombs has plenty of pop in front of goal as well, as five goals in 2010 shows. She only managed a couple of goals last season but was used in less of an attacking role and may move further up the pitch once Zadorsky gets back to Ann Arbor, or if the club finds other solutions in defense.
Another junior, Kayla Mannino, was another convert to the defense after functioning as a reserve as a rookie and ended up sticking, making eighteen starts last season and should be more comfortable in the backline this year. Depth is a real concern with this group though, as sophomore Jen Pace, who made three starts and nine appearances total is likely the best of the rest as far as returnees go. Not much arrives on defense in this latest recruiting class either, so Ryan may have to do some scrambling to piece together the depth needed to contend in the Big Ten.
Depth most definitely won’t be a problem in the midfield, where Michigan is practically overflowing with choices for Ryan. That depth should help overcome the loss of starter Courtney Mercier, who was in first XI every match last season and scored just once but made it count, notching the game winner against Duquesne. Reserve Shelby Murphy, who saw time in seven games last year also exits.
Many eyes will likely be focused on fifth-year senior and captain Clare Stachel. A youth international at U18 level for the U.S., Stachel showed signs of potential as a rookie in 2008 with five assists as she started every game. After an injury cut her out of 2009′s plans, Stachel has since roared back into the limelight, scoring five goals and adding three assists as she earned All-Big Ten Second Team honors last year. Stachel’s scoring prowess likely means a spot up front when Ezurike is at the U20 World Cup, though she could stay there more permanently if the club needs scoring punch.
Also likely to miss the opening of the season with U20 World Cup commitments is Mexican Christina Murillo. Having represented the U.S. at U15 and U17 level, Murillo made the switch at qualifying for the U17 World Cup and has been an important part of the Mexican youth setup since. Murillo would start every game last season as a rookie in Ann Arbor and came through with five assists and Big Ten All-Freshman Team honors in a fine rookie season.
Despite some potential churn around her, U23 international Meghan Toohey, also a former All-Freshman Team selection, should feature in the starting lineup as a junior. Toohey was looking at another fine season last year with twelve starts in twelve games but ended up being lost for the season through injury in late September, a blow which severely hampered Michigan’s postseason hopes. McCombs will go where she’s needed and could easily fill a role if needed here. There are plenty of other options if she’s needed elsewhere though.
Junior Holly Hein started almost every game as a rookie, scoring three game winning goals in 2009 but missed much of 2010 through injury before missing most of last year after successful surgery for thyroid cancer in late September. Thankfully back to health, Hein should again be a contender for a starting spot in the Michigan lineup. Senior Emily Jaffe had been at Iowa in 2009 but transferred back to her hometown club in 2010 and was with the UM club team in 2010 before joining up with the varsity squad in September of last year. Jaffe would start seven times in midfield before being taken sick late in the year and missing the final three games of the year.
Chloe Sosenko replaced Toohey in the starting lineup once she went down injured and made six starts while adding three assists as a rookie and could be a spot starter or top reserve again. Mexican U20 international Shelby Chambers-Garcia has also been a key reserve these past two years and should fill the super sub role again after scoring twice last year off the bench.
Ryan adds even more depth this season through his recruiting class. Leah Haidar is a freshman with great playmaker potential and long-range scoring ability who could also be a set piece specialist for the club. Cassie Collins is more of a defensive option in midfield who still has pace and passing ability to display and should add balance to the middle of the park for the Wolverines. Ordonez brings the flash with skill and pace, not to mention a workrate praised by Ryan as being exceptional. This group is extremely deep and versatile and should be one of the best midfields in the Big Ten.
Michigan has Ezurike, and honestly, that might be all they need against many opponents. The burly Canadian is a perfect target forward, using her size to devastating effect against many a foe through two seasons in college, with her finest hour last season coming against Purdue, whom she ripped apart with a hat trick. Ezurike already has six game winning goals and twenty goals overall but may have to curb an aggressive streak that saw her booked four times in six Big Ten matches last year, forcing her to sit out the crucial defeat to Michigan State in mid-October. Unfortunately for Michigan, she’ll be missing more than a single game this season, as the Canadian will be on international duty at the U20 World Cup in all likelihood for the first month of the season.
Depth will likely be provided by shoehorning some of the other returnees adept at other positions like Stachel or McCombs into the void rather than promoting some of the reserves, especially after losing freshman Kate Maguigan at the end of last season. Keep an eye on rookie Corinne Harris though. The freshman has been tearing it up in club ball for NSA Premier over the past year and might just be a bigger factor right away than some might believe, especially given Ezurike’s absence. Ezurike is as dangerous a forward there is in the Big Ten, but it’ll be interesting to see how the club copes in the face of her long-term absence.
Michigan may have rebuilt ahead of schedule, but it wouldn’t be harsh to say that they underachieved mightily last season given the talent on hand and the strides they had taken just a season before. There’s no way that last year’s squad should have been on the outside looking in in the postseason picture, and it’s much the same entering this season. This Wolverines squad looks loaded for a run back at the postseason, with the club looking solid everywhere, especially in midfield, where Ryan has a cavalcade of riches to work with.
The big worry though is the early stretch of the season where the club will likely be without Zadorsky, Ezurike, and Murillo for the U20 World Cup. That’s three of the club’s very best players, and the losses of Ezurike and Zadorsky could be especially problematic given the club’s lack of depth up front and in defense. There’s also the issue of Michigan having stubbed their toe in non-conference games the past few seasons, dropping results when they really shouldn’t have.
This year’s non-conference slate doesn’t look too formidable outside a date at Long Beach State, but given the club’s recent track record, nothing should be taken for granted. Despite some early season challenges though, a spot in mid-table in the Big Ten and a return to the NCAA Tournament should be the bare minimum that’s acceptable in Ann Arbor this year.