Jennifer Klein rode into Ann Arbor riding a Trojan horse of success as an associate head coach for 2016 National Champion and perennial women’s soccer power USC. Moving a program such as Michigan forward proved to be a challenging task for several reasons but this year of transition also had plenty of successes.
The Wolverines finished the 2018 season with a 9-9-1 overall record and a 5-5-1 record in the Big Ten. The team battled through a rough stretch early in the season when they lost three straight games but improved as the season went along.
For the most part, Michigan was very competitive and played teams close. Only three of the team’s nine losses were by more than a goal.
“It was a growing and learning experience for everyone,” said Klein. “There was a new style, a new culture that we had to work our way through. When you look at the games in which we gave up multiple goals like Wake Forest and Northwestern we just got exposed in areas that we needed to get better in. As much as the results were tough to take, it did allow us to focus on those areas and get better.”
Klein says it’s only natural that with a new coach, new system and new staff there are bound to be some growing pains.
“Anytime you come in and change things and ask players to do things differently it’s going to take some time,” she said. “Especially early on when you face some pressure or adversity, players will tend to go back to what they feel comfortable with. Trying to get the new way of doing things to become consistent and natural habits just takes some time.”
And after some time had passed, the Wolverines did settle in and became more comfortable with the new system and direction. The Wolverines were playing their best soccer at the end of the season, earning a trip to the Big Ten Conference Tournament where they lost 1-0 to host 16th ranked Penn State on a goal in the 89th minute of play on Oct. 28.
“We were very happy with the way the season ended,” Klein said. “Making it back to the conference tournament was a nice accomplishment for this group. Playing the game we played against Penn State was a very positive finish and even though we didn’t get the win I think everyone was pleased with our performance.”
Ending on a high note proved that not only the new system can work but should provide plenty of motivation to continue the process for next year.
“I think they saw the great improvement we made over a short period of time and has energized everyone for next year especially with a full off-season to continue that improvement,” she said.
One factor that didn’t help the Wolverines in this year of transition was injuries.
“Especially in the back we had some unfortunate injuries,” Klein said. “Some injuries you can’t afford. They are going to happen. But a lot of them that occurred for us were not the result of over use or over training. We were happy with the management of our players over the course of the season but had some injuries you just can’t avoid.”
Klein said the injuries limited the team’s ability to come together and find consistency on the pitch. But there was a flip side.
“It allowed us the ability to play a lot more players that might not have otherwise played,” Klein said. “It helped us create a little more depth which should benefit us moving forward.”
Having spent the last five seasons in the Pac 12, Klein saw some differences between the conference she knows so well and the Big Ten. She said there are no days off in the Big Ten.
“I was asked about that recently by some recruits,” she said. “The Pac 12 has a clear top (USC, UCLA and Stanford) then the middle and a few teams at the bottom. But the Big 10 is all middle. When you look at the results it’s pretty clear that anyone can beat anyone on a given day. You have to be prepared and ready to play every time you step on the field.
“There is much more emphasis on defending in the Big Ten which makes for different challenges for our staff. In the Pac 12 there is more emphasis on attacking.”
Three members of the U-M women’s soccer team received All-Big Ten Conference honors. Senior forward Reilly Martin and sophomore midfielder Sarah Stratigakis were All-Big Ten Second Team selections and freshman Janiece Joyner earned a spot on the All-Freshman team.
Sophomore Nicki Hernandez paced U-M with 22 points (eight goals, six assists), Stratigakis had 17 points, and Martin concluded her collegiate career with 21 goals and 24 assists, including six goals and four assists in her senior season.
The Wolverines will have plenty of talent and experience returning next season and the future certainly looks bright in Ann Arbor. Klein also will get a full offseason with her team to continue the process.
“I was very happy with the contributions of the senior class and they were great in this first year and I’m very appreciative of how they performed on and off the field,” Klein said. “We are very excited when you look at the players who are returning. This is a young group with a lot of talent to work with.”
Replacing experienced seniors is never easy but the Wolverines will have a new group of freshman players coming to Ann Arbor next season.
“Recruiting is going really well,” Klein said. “I’m very happy with how things are going. We are emphasizing recruiting right here in Michigan. There are a lot of great players here so we want to keep Michigan kids in Michigan and then add the players who we think will be the right fit for Michigan soccer.”
Klein is certainly looking forward to year two.
“We are trying to build something that is sustainable,” she said. “Everything is a process. As tough as the losses were this year, they were all experiences that will help our program grow.