The Michigan Daily - michigandaily.com
Wednesday, October 23, 2013 - 5A
The ichgan ail - ichiandilyom WdnedayOctber23, 013- 5
Senior forward Nkem Ezurike, now the new Michigan career scoring record holder, has helped build the women's soccer program into a national contender during her four years in Ann Arbor.
zurike: W t I have is
greater than anythin else
By JAKE LOURIM
Daily Sports Writer
Senior forward Nkem Ezurike
sits on the-bench at the U-M Soc-
cer Stadium, looking out at the
field she dominates. Sunday, she
became the greatest goal scorer
ever to play at Michigan, in the
greatest era since the 1990s, on
perhaps the greatest team Michi-
gan has ever had.
It is dreary, quiet and empty,
except for a groundskeeper on
the field. The lights are off, the
bleachers vacant. That will all
change three nights later.
It wasn't always like this, the
confident dominance around the
program. When Ezurike came to
Ann Arbor, the rise of Michigan
women's soccer was in its infan-
cy. There was no stadium, no field
and no bench. The uniform she
wears did not exist, nor the nets
she hits with every goal, nor the
supporting cast alongside her.
Ezurike is outside the lines of
the field, so she is calm, unassum-
ing and soft-spoken. When she is
on the field, she is a terror, eager
to beat anyone in the way of her
"It's really funny to me because.
she's not like that at all off the
field," said freshman forward
Madisson Lewis. "She's such a
jokester, and she's always so calm.
She's a completely different per-
son on and off the field."
Ezurike sits here at the cross-
roads of two journeys: one to
become the greatest goal scorer
in Michigan history, the other
to take the Wolverines to the top
tier of women's soccer. The first
journey is over. The second? Well,
that's just getting started.
In 2008, Michigan coach Greg
Ryan's first season, assistant
coach Dean Duerst called Ryan
from a college showcase tourna-
ment in Canada with a message:
There's a kid up here you're going
to want to see.
Her name was Nkept Ezurike,
which is Nigerian, meaning
"What I have is greater than any-
thing else." She has lived up to
"If there's a player we need
to try to get into our program
as soon as we can, it would be
Nkem," Duerst said. "She also
was the right fit in terms of what
we call a target player."
In Ryan's first two years, Mich-
igan survived on 1-0 wins and
scoreless ties. The Wolverines
won four games in his first season
and six in his second, with just
one in the Big Ten each season.
He knew there was a ceiling
for his teams as long as they kept
playing like that. He needed a
natural goal scorer, like he had in
Abby Wambach when he coached
the U.S. Women's National Team.
In his first year, Ryan asked a
fellow coach how many Big Ten-
caliber players he had on his ros-
ter. The answer was one. His goal
was to rebuild the program, and
he knew if he could nab Ezurike,
that would be a start.
The coaching staff promised
Ezurike an immediate role on the
team - there was no adjustment
period. The journeyto the record
"I don't know if I ever put it in
perspective of that," said senior
midfielder Meghan Toohey. "But
I knew she was going to be by
far one of the best forwards this
program's ever had. When she
started scoring and scoring and
thinking about the record, I knew,
for sure that she was going to beat
Ezurike is quiet about her
individual impact on the team,
but her teammates and coaches
aren't. They know the differ-
ence between Michigan with
and without her. The truth is,
the Wolverines go where Ezurike
takes them - from nine goals in
2010 for an NCAA Tournament
appearance, to 15 goals in2022 for
a Sweet 16 berth, to 10 so far this
year as Big Ten contenders.
But Ryan knew he needed
more than.a goal scorer. He need-
ed a team of leaders and pure, die-
hard competitors. Ezurike was
that, too: when she steps inside
the lines, a strange transforma-
tion happens. She goes from quiet
to loud, unassuming to assertive,
shy to fiery.
"She just becomes Nkem,"
Ryan said. "She becomes that
other Nkem that everybody loves
to see on the field."
A referee ignores contact
against her, and she yells across
the field to him. Another player
pushes her, and she gets into the
player's face. She misses a shot,
and she glares.
Why? Because they have one
thing in common: they're all in
the way of Ezurike's journey.
"In the previous years, all the
seniors had that sense of urgency,
like it was their last shot,"Ezurike
said. "You definitely don't under-
stand it until you're actually a
senior. It's kind of like despera-
tion, that urgency to do well and
end on a high."
Three years after she first
stepped onto the field as a fresh-
man, Ezurike is on her last go-
round. There is no next season, no
alternative to winning now.
Ezurike's career has not been a
smooth ride. Within every strik-
er is the pressure to score goals
and carry the team every game.
Ezurike needs to be a contributor,
and when she's not, it weighs on
"I wouldn't say that it worried
her pulling her confidence down,,
but it definitely challenged her,"
Toohey said. "One reason Nkem is
as good of a player as she is, is that
she is hard on herself but doesn't
put too much pressure on herself
that takes away from scoring an
Ezurike said the hardest time
of her career was her sophomore
year, when Michigan returned
the bulk of its 2010 NCAA Tour-
nament team. Ezurike, of course,
expected more, perhaps a further
run into the tournament.
Instead, the Wolverines took
a step back: they finished just a
shade over .500, won four Big Ten
games and gave up three or more
goals four times.
Now, in the dark stadium,
the empty field seems emptier
when Ezurike thinks about those
moments, the moments that test-
ed Michigan's ability to rebuild.
"We knew we had the poten-
tial to be a really good team,"
Ezurike said. "Not being able to
execute, that was difficult and
hard to handle. We grew from it,
we learned from it and then we
went on to have a good season the
Ezurike's mother, Christie,
knows her daughter. She knows
how much pressure she puts on
"It was really tough because
(Ezurike) is sometimes too hard
on herself," Christie said. "When
the team is not doing well, she
gets really down. When that hap-
pened, she was disappointed. She
was a little bit hard on herself, but
she bounced back."
That was not Ezurike's last go-
The next year, Ezurike missed
the first four games of the season
to play in the U-20 World Cup
for Canada in Japan. When she
returned from a 13-hourtime dif-
ference to a new team and a new
season, she struggled. She didn't
score in the first four games - her
longest drought since early in her other.
sophomore season - and Michi-
gan lost twice, including once in ***
the last minute of regulation.
Ryan said he went to lunch As with all questions about
with Ezurike and talked with her herself, Ezurike is mum when
to ease her frustration. He taught talking about the record.
her to move onto the next chance She's scored so many times
after she missed one. on this field, but she hesitates to
In her fifth game, Ezurike talk about them. The other play-
scored twice to lift Michigan to ers start to mill around, trickling
a 3-0 win. She went onto score in into the stadium. Ezurike starts
11 of the last 15 games, including to credit them.
the overtime winner in the first But the stats show Ezurike's
round of the NCAA Tournament. impact: last season, the Wol-
"Her freshman year was a verines won eight of 11 games in
great year for her," Duerst said. which she scored and only four of
"The next year was a good year. eight in which she didn't.
But I think last year was kind of Sunday, Ezurike scored twice
like Nkem coming out." to break the record.
Ezurike claimed last week that
* ** she wouldn't celebrate any differ-
ently than any other goal, but it
The lights are on and the was clear she knew what it meant.
stands are full now at the U-M After the record-setting goal, she
Soccer Stadium, a far cry from received a hug from almost every-
when Ezurike sat there alone one else on the field with a joyful
three days earlier. Michigan is smile. When the game ended, she
playing Indiana to stay in conten- went over to the opposite side
tion for .a Big Ten championship. of the field, where her mother,
None of the players are math Christie, awaited after making
majors, but they know this: there the trip from Nova Scotia.
are 33 points possible in Big Ten Ezurike insisted last week that
play, and they have already lost she wouldn't get swept up in the
five of them. emotion, but she did.
Ezurike knows this, too, so "I think it would mean a lot to
when she misses a shot high in Nkem to achieve (the record),"
the first minute, then again in the Ryan said last week. "She's such
12th minute, then wide right in a humble person that she will be
the 14th and wide left in the 21st, the last to mention it. The way she
she grows more and more impa- plays, she's in the limelight, but
tient. that's not who Nkem is. I think it's
In the second half, with the one of those things that she'll be
game still scoreless, Ezurike very quietly proud of for the rest
battles with an opponent in the of her life."
box and gets called for a foul. The Mother and daughter met
competitiveness in her simmers, again later, and Christie beamed
and she yells a few words to the with pride. She knew how Much
referee. went into that moment - all the
But this is a different Ezurike hours of work, the frustration on
than the one from three years the field, the phone calls home,
ago, so Michigan is a different the talks with Ryan, every one of
team. The 18-year-old Ezurike those 45 goals and even a 1,000-
might have kept talking and been mile trip from Lower Sackville,
given a yellow card. The young N.S.
Michigan team might have fired "She's agreat daughter,"Chris-
shots wide and high until the sta- tie said with a proud smile."When
dium lights went off, falling to yet she comes home, you know she's
another 0-0 tie. home because everything will be
Instead, Ezurike says her taken care of." .
words, then roams around the Every one of her 45 career
final third for a few moments. goals has added something to the
These moments make careers, Wolverines' program. Her 46th
when players are struggling and will, too, as will her 47th. It may
still find a way to help their team be her goal that clinches Michi-
win. gan's first Big Ten championship
She stands in one spot, catch- ever, or her goal that moves the
ing her breath and checking her Wolverines along in the NCAA
emotions. Then she cuts inside, Tournament.
looking for a pass that can bring The numbers, at that point, are
her one step closer to finishing irrelevant. Ezurike is chasinghis-
one journey and continuing the tory, but not the number 44.
By SHANNON LYNCH
Daily Sports Writer
The Michigan women's basket-
ball team performed far beyond
expectations last season - it raced
to the best start in program his-
tory by going 15-2, tied a pro-
gram record for wins with 22 and
earned a spot in the NCAA Tour-
nament, advancing to the second
The Wolverines had a lot to be
proud of, but even more to worry
about. Michigan lost five seniors,
who together accounted for 84
percent of the team's scoring.
Beginning her second year as
head coach, the ever-optimistic
Kim Barnes Arico took to the podi-
um Tuesday afternoon to address
the media for the first time this
season. Right away, she called this
year one of transition and growth.
Official practices started just 15
days ago; and with four freshmen,
two transfers and only one return-
ing starter, there are still a lot of
unknowns about the team.
The Wolverines were given a
chance to play in Europe earlier
this summer, which gave Barnes
Arico and the coaching staff an
opportunity to experiment with
the lineup while also preparing
the young group for the adjust-
ment to college ball.
"Sometimes for the freshmen,
that's a big part chat's really dif-
ficult for them is the speed of the
game and the strength of the other
players that they're going to face,"
Barnes Arico said. "A lot of these
kids were coming off of ACL inju-
ries in the last year and didn't get
to play at all, so it gave them an
opportunity to get back on the
court before the official season
The Wolverines will face an
array of challenges over the com-
ing weeks, and the coaching staff
faces the task of preparing both
their young players and their inex-
perienced upperclassmen to face
UNTIMELY INJURIES: Sopho-
more Kelsey Mitchell was a stand-
out rebounder in Europe and one
member of the team Arico was
expecting to make an impact after
missing all of last season with an
anterior cruciate ligament tear.
However, the forward recent-
ly suffered a broken foot that
required surgery and is expected
to sit out three to five months.
"That was obviously a horrible
blow to our program when we lost
her again, and I'm sure it's really
devastating to Kelsey as well,"
Barnes Arico said.
Mitchell wasn't the only Wol-
verine who battled ACL issues
last season - four Michigan play-
ers were confined to the bench in
2012-13 with knee injuries. Senior
forwards Val Driscoll and Ken-
dra Seto both return to the court
this year, but neither have had the
chance to play for Barnes Arico in
SIZING UP THE COMPETITION:
A lack of size may be the biggest
issue the team faces this season,
with seven players listed at under
6-foot. But Barnes Arico has done
work to combat the issue, includ-
ing an atypical recruiting move to
land junior forward Nicole Flyer.
The story of Flyer's journey to
Crisler Center is a bit unortho-
dox. She's a junior walk-on, who
was previously a varsity athlete
at Michigan on the women's row-
ing team. Barnes Arico laughed
thinking back on how she sent her
coaches out on campus to find a
girl over 6-feet tall.
"We were in a position with
injuries that we needed somebody
that had pretty good size, so I put
my people on a mission," she said.
"We did our homework on her, she
came by the office, and she's been
The team has also focused on
channeling its other strengths to
make up for the lack of height.
"We really put emphasis every
single day in practice on blocking
out, being able to chase balls down
and really doing a ton of drills to
make sure that we're trying to
work on that," Barnes Arico said.
"Pretty much every contest we're
going to be in this year, we're
going to be the smaller team, so
that's definitely a concern of ours."