Gophers started the season strong but wound up last in the conference

by Paul Cordes

A season that began with one of the best starts in school history ended on Friday as Minnesota’s soccer team fell 4-1 to Ohio State, finishing the year with wins in just two of its last 11 games.

The Gophers’ season was looking up after the great start to the year, with crucial wins over No. 21 Dartmouth and Missouri Valley Conference regular season champion Drake. But the minute Big Ten play arrived, Minnesota’s chances for postseason play departed.

The Gophers (8-9-2 overall, 1-8-1 Big Ten) never clicked offensively and struggled greatly. Their only Big Ten win came against Iowa, which shared last place in the conference with Minnesota.

Coach Mikki Denney Wright said she was very optimistic about the season after seeing how well her team played in the first half of the year.

“I think we were very excited on how well the team started,” she said. “But then our youth started to catch up with us. We had a few costly injuries and our attack, which we were very happy with at the beginning of the year, really started to struggle.”

Minnesota put up just three goals during Big Ten play. The Gophers scored that many goals in games against Drake (3-0) and Northern Colorado (3-1) before conference play began.

Sophomore midfielder Kaitlin Wagner said part of the reason the offense had a tough time in the second half of the season was the fact that it was playing in a tough defensive conference, but the complete collapse was still kind of a mystery to her.

“The Big Ten had a lot of teams very good at defense and we have to learn how to pick apart their weaknesses,” she said. “I really wish I knew exactly why we had such a tough time though.”

Minnesota will take a week off before starting practices once again. Although practices are limited, Denney Wright stressed the importance of offseason workouts.

“During the spring we’re really able to work with players to help them grow and develop like we didn’t have time to do during the fall,” she said. “We have a lot more opportunities to teach our younger players and, hopefully, they will learn and improve for next season.”

Next season, the Gophers will be a much more experienced team as it returns 12 sophomores, nine juniors and three seniors. The team had no seniors this season.

As for the new recruits, six players have committed to Minnesota from the class of 2007. Four of the six were selected by the Star Tribune as First team All-Metro while one was a Second team All-Metro.

Last year, Denney Wright brought in the 13th-ranked recruiting class in the country, the highest ranked recruiting class in Minnesota history.

“It is so important that we continue to bring in more and more talent every year,” she said. “You cannot compete in the Big Ten without good recruiting classes.”

With even more young players being added to the team, upperclassmen experience and leadership will become all the more important, especially now that the Gophers have the upperclassmen to offer it.

Sophomore midfielder Kelsey Hood talked about the leadership problems this year and what the plan is to improve the quality of leadership for next year.

“One of the problems we had this year was as leaders, we didn’t prepare the younger players for the Big Ten and we didn’t push them enough at practice,” she said. “I think that’s a mistake we’ve learned from and next year we’re going to really push them, break them down and pick them back up.”