17 Sep Michigan State transfer Paige Webber having fun with IU women’s soccer
Paige Webber is having fun again.
Just 10 days ago, the Grand Blanc, Michigan, native was starting to wonder if or when that would happen.
But the Michigan State transfer scored her first goal as a Hoosier against Murray State — and her second and her third — and now the junior is ready to lead an Indiana team off to its best start since 2013 into Big Ten play against her former team on Sunday afternoon at 1 o’clock in Bill Armstrong Stadium.
“(I’m having) lots of fun, especially since the week before that was really rough for me,” said Webber, who was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week on Tuesday. “Scoring a hat trick and getting offensive player of the week has been amazing.”
Indiana not an easy transition
Through the first six matches of the season, the move from East Lansing to Bloomington had been anything but amazing for Webber.
She came off the bench five times and started once, failing to notch a point, even as Indiana rolled past Southeast Missouri State, 6-0.
For someone who had started all 25 matches of her Spartan career while scoring seven goals and collecting two assists, it was not what she had in mind.
“Very (frustrating),” Webber said. “I came from a program where I played a lot of minutes, then came (to Indiana) and was not playing a lot and wasn’t understanding why, so I had a talk with Coach (Erwin van Bennekom). He didn’t think I was performing and helping the team. That really got to me.”
As far as van Bennekom was concerned, It was just part of the learning curve.
“I think more is expected from her here in terms of defensive work and positioning and understanding,” he said. “Before, when her team has the ball, they play it to Paige or put her in behind. Now there’s more sophistication to the game, like understand pressing when we lose the ball.”
A tough decision was looming with a road trip to Kansas State on the horizon, and van Bennekom wasn’t sure Webber should even be on the travel roster. But Indiana had one more game on the homestand, and the coach wasn’t ready to wave the white towel.
“I had a good feeling, he said. “She’s a proven player in our league, so we knew the talent was there, she just hadn’t been doing as well. That game against Murray State shows how fast things can change.”
Many of her teammates didn’t realize what a change it was.
“I hid that. I didn’t want people to know,” Webber said. “I talked to my family at home, but I didn’t talk with players here because others are going through the same thing. I didn’t want to put my problems on them. I had belief I’d figure it out.”
After that tough conversation, Webber’s belief kept her from giving up.
“It was time to stop being scared and do what I can do,” she said. “I basically let myself be upset about it for an hour, then I said, ‘There’s a game tomorrow,’ and I ended up scoring a hat trick.”
The first goal came with IU already up 1-0, a volley from the right side of the box to make it 2-0 just before halftime, and with that a weight was lifted. Two more goals followed in the second half.
“Honestly, when I got the first goal I didn’t anticipate scoring three,” Webber said. “When I scored the first one, I was like, ‘There we go, that’s what I’ve been missing.’ I didn’t play the majority of the games last spring after I entered the transfer portal, so it had been a long time since I had a goal.
“But I was like, ‘That’s the old Paige, she’s coming back,’ and it gave me a huge boost of confidence just from scoring one. Then I showed more with two others in the second half.”
Leaving the Spartans, staying in the B1G
While the individual stats were promising at Michigan State, Paige Webber knew early on that she wasn’t really happy.
“I kind of had idea I wanted to transfer after freshman season but I basically said, ‘I’ll give it another season,’ then COVID happened,” she said. “Spring started, but I wasn’t happy with the situation I was in.”
A lopsided 7-3 loss to rival Michigan was the final straw, a game in which Webber scored her final goal as a Spartan.
“We got brutally beat by Michigan, and after the game, everyone was just laughing,” she said. “That was the problem, no one cared to get better.”
The next day at training, she told the coaching staff she wanted to transfer. The first game Michigan State played without Webber was against … Indiana.
Entering the portal, Webber was eyeing schools in the ACC or SEC because she thought she would have to sit out a season if she transferred within the conference. But the NCAA new one-time transfer rule changed all that.
“When Indiana first emailed me, I was like, ‘Why are they mailing me?'” Webber recalled. “I didn’t know the rule was different, so I didn’t respond until two days later.”
From the Hoosiers’ perspective, reaching out was an easy decision.
“When I saw her on the transfer portal, we’d played against MSU and scouted her and watched her and seen her score in the league,” van Bennekom said. “We have an online platform to look at clips and I spent a day watching video on top of what I knew, plus I knew her club coaches well.
“It was pretty clear — we had scholarship money available and it was a no-brainer.”
Webber watched as Indiana enjoyed its best Big Ten finish since 2013 and recorded the most points in Big Ten play in program history with a 6-4-1 record.
And she saw the Hoosiers’ postseason finale, a 3-1 loss to No. 6 Penn State.
“I watched some of their games and saw Erwin coaching even in the final minutes of 3-1 loss to Penn State,” Webber said. “He’s not giving up and that was so different from I came from where the coaches didn’t care.
“He really cared about the success of the program. I was like, ‘I want to play for that guy.'”
Webber, Hoosiers gaining confidence
Webber followed up her breakout game against Murray State with an assist in Indiana’s 3-0 win at Kansas State last Sunday, giving both her and the team much-needed momentum.
“I feel like I’m in a good position now with playing time and stuff,” she said. “The weeks before that were really tough as a new player and trying to show off to the coaches and get in their vision is difficult, but the hat trick did that for me. I feel a lot better.”
And van Bennekom can see it in her ability to do what he knew she was capable of doing.
“She doesn’t give too much away, whether she’s happy or angry or whatever, but the directness in her game and ability to score is very good — some of the best I’ve seen,” he said. “Even in training, she doesn’t need many chances. She’s really good in the air, can strike with her left and right, run in behind, shoot from distance.
“She played well against Kansas State. She’s starting to feel good about herself and (the Big Ten opener) comes at a good time.”
It also comes against her former team, which brings its own challenges.
However, van Bennekom said Webber’s willingness to embrace a challenge, like the one he gave her before Murray State, is what gives her an edge.
“It says a lot about her that she’s excited,” he said. “A lot of people leave and transfer and go somewhere where they don’t play that team, let alone being in the same league and the same division, but she’s excited about it.”
And, ultimately, Webber just wants to have fun, even if it’s at her former teammates’ expense.
“I’m excited for it because I really want to win. I guess that’s why (I’m excited),” Webber said. “I’m a little nervous because I don’t know what to expect — they have a new coach and some transfers. If they kept the same coaches and stuff, I’d know exactly how it’s going to be. But I’m super excited to play them and we can beat them, which would be super fun.”
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