HOUGHTON - Without exaggeration, the Michigan Tech women's soccer team faces the most important game in program history this Friday at Grand Valley State.
The Lakers lead the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in goals scored (25) and goals allowed (3). They finished last season as national runners-up and have won seven GLIAC titles in a row. In four career matchups with the Huskies, Grand Valley has won by a 17-0 margin.
And Tech is up three points in conference play with four games to play.
Michigan Tech’s Janelle Riedl plays the ball near midfield during last Friday’s home match against Ashland at Sherman Field. The Huskies travel to Grand Valley State Friday night in what is the biggest match in the program’s three-year history. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
With a victory or a draw, Tech will be in the driver's seat for the GLIAC championship and No. 1 playoff seeding - which includes home-field advantage throughout the postseason tournament - but due to tiebreakers (head to head matchup), a loss would push the Huskies to No. 2.
"It's finally here," Tech coach Michelle Jacob said. "We are treating it like any other game, but we recognize that it's an important game. We'll be ready for it."
The mental challenges may be as significant as the physical ones for the Huskies.
The Lakers have had enjoyed a stranglehold on the conference since the oldest Tech players were just entering high school. All four meetings over the last two seasons have resulted in a blowout.
But as Tech has proved time and again this season, the Huskies are a brand-new team. And a 10-game unbeaten streak can do wonders for the confidence in a defining matchup like this.
"We feel really good. Really good," Tech leading scorer and junior Katie Boardman said. "We really want that win. We are the underdogs, even though we are the team on top right now, we still have to prove we can beat them. They are (past) national champs, they are always on top in conference, but we really think we can get that win."
"I don't think that I need to convince them," Jacob added. "They know. We have played great games and games where we made mistakes and still won. We know what we are capable. We can hang with them and we can score goals on them."
Despite failing to score in the previous four matchups, Jacob believes there will be no residual pressure from the previous two years.
"I just don't think the last years matter," Jacob said. "We are not anywhere near the same team as we were last year. It is the same formation, but a different style and a different level. We are so much stronger, quicker, faster. I really don't think last year's results matter at all to our girls."
On the pitch, the two teams both play in the same formation with a similar style. Both push up in a 4-3-3, and both prefer possessing the ball to a counter attack or long ball strategy.
Often in these circumstances, one team will acknowledge - perhaps grudgingly or subliminally - the opponent's superiority on the ball and concede possession to set up the defense and try and exploit gaps off turnovers.
Tech is doing no such thing.
"We are definitely sticking to the same game plan we have every time," Jacob said. "We are emphasizing that we are going to have to play a little bit faster than we are used to though. They are athletic and quick, but we want the girls to know they can take them on. I want us to be confident that we are a great team too."
With many teams in the GLIAC, there are one or two forwards the defense must focus on to shut down the attack.
Grand Valley and Tech are at the top of the table this year as neither team has just one or two scorers. Every forward and midfielder is a threat.
For Grand Valley, nine different players have scored multiple goals this season, while the Lakers trio of forwards Maria Brown, Ashley Botts and Kayla Addison have combined for 21 goals.
For Tech's backline - which has been superb this season, only allowing five goals in nine GLIAC?games - this puts extra emphasis on gap control and winning individual battles.
"All of their forwards are very strong," Jacob said. "If we give them too much room, they will take the shot. If you get caught flat, they will take you head on. Just very solid in all aspects."