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Defying the odds

NMU women’s soccer overcomes obstacles to have strong season

Northern Michigan University's Caroline Halonen, front left, battles a Ferris State player for the ball as teammates Gwen Kiilunen, center, and Michelle Keranen, right, watch the play during the first half of their game played Friday, April 9, 2021, in the Superior Dome in Marquette. (Journal photo by Ryan Stieg)

MARQUETTE — At the start of this spring season, the Northern Michigan University women’s soccer team wasn’t expected to do much in the GLIAC.

The Wildcats were predicted to finish ninth in the 10-team conference, which wouldn’t have gotten them into the league tournament. However, NMU (8-3-1) defied the preseason odds, finished third in the conference, earned a home playoff game, and made it all the way to the GLIAC championship game where it fell to preseason favorite Grand Valley State.

Looking back on the Ashland match where Northern upset the second-seeded Eagles, Wildcats head coach Jon Sandoval was proud of how his team came together to get to the title game during his first year at the helm.

“I thought it went pretty well,” he said Wednesday. “If you look at the statistics as well, you can tell it was a pretty close game. The weather was a little bit of a factor, so we built kind of our game plan around the wind and just trying to kind of give us the best chance to win. If you look back on what a conference tournament is, usually the best game is usually that semifinal game. And then the finals is just basically a grind out, adrenaline will push you past in the finals. We were able to come out and execute and I think we got a good goal, and I think we probably could have had at least another one. Then for that second half, the way that we defended against the wind — and we were able to handle the pressure from Ashland — just showed a lot of determination and grit from our team. So overall, we were really happy and we did think that we deserved the win against Ashland. The way that we played, the way that we executed, another great finisher from Caroline (Halonen) and just an ultimate team effort from absolutely every single person to be able to weather the storm against the wind and to be able to find a way to get into the final.”

The Wildcats had built up some momentum going into the championship against GVS, but the Lakers clamped down on NMU and it couldn’t really generate any offense.

Northern Michigan UniversityÕs Caitlyn Trombley, right, races NorthwoodÕs Emilie Pechette to the ball during the first half of their GLIAC Tournament women's soccer quarterfinal match played Tuesday, April 27, 2021, at the Superior Dome in Marquette. (Journal photo by Ryan Stieg)

“They (the Lakers) deserved the win,” Sandoval said. “Obviously, they’re a high quality team and they execute very well and they play a little bit of a different, I’d say more of a modern-style soccer that because of the high quality players they have that they’re capable of doing. They’re a high-powered offense too that can score at will and you can’t give them half-chance opportunities because most college teams, they may not finish those, but Grand Valley is not like most college teams. So you give them enough opportunities, they’re gonna score some goals. I thought we did a good job to limit their abilities, but on the flip side, we have to finish our chances and we really didn’t generate a whole lot of chances offensively. We were able to possess it a little bit more than we did in the first game, we were able to break it down a little bit more than we did in the first game. But offensively, we really didn’t get many great looks whereas (goalie) Shenae (Kreps) came up pretty big in our game a couple times. Defensively, I thought we came up pretty big. So to keep them 3-0, it was good, but I would love to have that first 15 to 20 minutes back in the first half in the championship game. We came off a little timid, came off a little soft and I think it’s due to the fact that we haven’t been in many high pressure matches like that before. And unless you are in those scenarios and in those situations, it’s hard to not let the nerves get to you and I thought that we did allow our nerves to get to us a little bit, but I think it’s a great experience for our returners to know that we can get back into a situation like that and once we are, we’ll have that experience of being in that scenario.”

Sandoval also said he knows his team gave everything it had out there against GVS, especially Halonen, the GLIAC Offensive Player of the Year, who fought through an injured leg.

“I do think there’s gonna be a level of regret about the way we came out, but I cannot fault our players or give them any criticisms of effort,” he said. “They definitely came out and gave it their all. I think one of the things that nobody really notices, but Caroline’s been in a boot. She’s been in a boot since Tuesday, so she’s been playing probably at 65% and she’s still finding a way to score goals and do things incredibly for us. Kiera Hau has got basically a broken arm. They’ve battled through so much that people were starting to get a little beat up toward the end of it, but I can never fault their effort. The way that they were able to battle through adversity this year and just to play for one another and leave it all on the field, I’ve got no regrets for them and they shouldn’t either in terms of what they’ve put together for the season.”

Looking at their record, it may look like it was an easy year for the Wildcats, but according to Sandoval, his team had to overcome “quite a bit.” Not only did Northern have to play in the spring instead of the fall, but it also had to play indoors in the Superior Dome. Sandoval talked about the amount of adversity his squad had to deal with, one of the biggest things being playing under him for the first time.

“If you think about it, you’ve got two first-year head coaches with myself and then Darian (Powell) and then you’ve got 12 new people coming into a program and then you’ve got the returners who haven’t had much success on the field and then just getting them to buy into what we’re doing, and that was probably the most rewarding part is to be able to see that,” he said. “We didn’t have to get them to buy in so much. They were already in there and I think you’ve got to credit the leadership that we have within the locker room, both Caroline and Kiera did a great job for us, but also the informal leaders all the way from Natalie (Stampfly) and then some of our sophomores like Brenna (Musser) and Izzie (Isabelle Brusilow), they really helped acclimate some of the newcomers to the program and they were able to step up big and be leaders for us. And they also played some impactful roles on the field and I think having some of those things that we had to go through also gave us more time to get those personalities gelled together to give them a little bit more of an understanding of how we’re gonna be playing and how we were gonna be successful. But ultimately, like I told our team, it comes down to them. It’s their mentality of saying ‘Okay, we’ve gotta buy into what coach says. So we’re gonna try to do this to the best of our ability.’ And they did that and they were fully bought in and we’ve been preaching you have to play for one another and that this is a player-coached team that we’re ultimately trying to get them to take ownership of and accountability of. From that regard, we can’t be more proud of our group this year.”

When asked what he’s gonna remember most about the year, Sandoval said it’s the bonds the team made and that he’ll “never forget” the spring 2021 season.

“That’s the thing that I’m gonna remember the most is just the relationships that we were able to build as a team and as a player and coach,” he said. “I couldn’t be more happy with what they accomplished and we’re hungry to get back out there. We’re trying to soak it in and take some time off here in the next week, but the players are ready and we’re ready and hungry and humble and ready to get back out there in the fall.”

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.

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