Denney Wright: blast from the past

First-year coach Mikki Denney Wright comes from a better era of Gophers soccer.

Bob Wothe

Most of her players use just one word to describe Minnesota’s first-year soccer coach: intense.

Of course, depending on whom you talk to, that might be an understatement.

“Extremely intense,” junior midfielder Kaitlin Neary said. “If you make a mistake with her, you know it won’t fly.”

Mikki Denney Wright became the third coach in the history of the program when she was hired Jan. 8 to replace Barbara Wickstrand and restore the Gophers to the prominence they held in Denney Wright’s playing days.

A three-time letter winner with the Gophers, Denney Wright was a team captain in 1995 and 1996, during a period when the Gophers won a Big Ten Championship and made the NCAA Tournament twice. She was a two-time second-team All-Big Ten selection and an All-Central Region second-team member in 1996.

She still holds the school consecutive starts record at 63.

And if you listen to any of her players talk about her, you quickly realize that the staying power and determination needed to start 63 consecutive soccer matches have carried over into her coaching days.

“Mikki has really brought a lot of discipline to the team,” sophomore forward Haley Lentsch said. “She’s very motivating.”

Her coaching career wasn’t exactly given to her, though.

Denney Wright paid her dues, beginning with the Colorado Rush Soccer Club’s under-16 team and staying there from June 1998 to June 2000.

From there, she became the top assistant and recruiting coordinator at Nebraska-Omaha for a year, before moving to Missouri and assuming the same roles for the last three years.

During her time with the Tigers, they earned the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament win in the first round against Eastern Illinois.

From there, the rest is what the Gophers said they hope will be a Cinderella-story turnaround. The team finished 6-10-2 last year and has struggled to score goals en route to a 3-6-0 start this year.

But Denney Wright has set distinctive and lofty goals for her players and helps keep them positive.

“She has high expectations,” Lentsch said. “She tells us what she wants, and she makes it clear that she won’t settle for any less.”

Aside from her number one goal of improving every day this season, Denney Wright said she has three clear goals set for every game.

“We’re really big into defensive pride and taking care of the ball,” Denney Wright said. “Then when we do have the ball, we need to have a fearless attacking mentality.”

With Denney Wright’s positive attitude and clear goals, Neary said, comparing Wickstrand with Denney Wright simply isn’t a comparison.

“Mikki is more focused and directed at what we work on,” Neary said. “She’s very intent on making everyone the best they can be.”

Her players said there’s no question that Denney Wright’s positive attitude has given new hope and swagger to a program that has struggled mightily over the last four years. Whether it translates to onfield success is another story.

The team has been very close in many matches – the Gophers’ current five-game losing streak is composed of only one-goal games – but has been unable to find the winning formula, going 0-4-0 in Big Ten play so far.

Denney Wright certainly has the team thinking it will come around, though.

“This team has a lot of talent,” Lentsch said. “We’re a completely different team with Mikki and I think anything under .500 would be a big disappointment.”