Minnesota rides a five-game unbeaten streak to Illinois

by Nick Gerhardt

Minnesota has a chance to make a statement to the rest of the conference this weekend.

The Gophers begin their first road trip of the Big Ten schedule against Illinois on Friday night.

Minnesota (6-3-1 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) enters a crucial stretch of five games, riding on a five-game unbeaten streak, but the Illini game will serve as a barometer to track the progress of the team.

The next five opponents the Gophers face all have rankings in either the national or regional polls.

“We’re in a stretch where we look at all five games,” coach Mikki Denney Wright said.

The team faces its biggest challenge of the conference schedule thus far Friday against a powerful Fighting Illini team that ranks No. 8 in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America Great Lakes regional poll.

Illinois (5-4 overall, 0-2 Big Ten) dropped a 2-1 double overtime game versus Ohio State last Friday and then lost to behemoth No. 11 Penn State 2-1 Sunday.

Illinois has two Missouri Athletic Club Hermann Trophy candidates, the highest honor for collegiate women’s soccer, in forward Ella Masar and defender Emily Zurrer.

“They are one of the most mobile teams off the ball so it will be important for us to stay with our marks,” senior Hailey McCarthy said.

Denney Wright feels her freshmen backline is up to the task of defending against strong offensive talents like that of Masar.

“They did an incredible job last weekend limiting opportunities. We feel strong about our system,” she said.

Minnesota has started to see recognition of its own in the polls, registering No. 13 in the Soccer Buzz magazine Great Lakes regional poll. The Gophers also received votes in the NSCAA Great Lakes regional poll.

When told of this, Denney Wright laughed.

“It’s interesting but it’s only the ranking at the end of the year that matters,” she said.

Either way, it signifies the progress of a squad hoping to become a top Big Ten team.

Minnesota displayed a gritty come-from-behind effort against Michigan for a 2-1 victory and came back on Sunday with a dominant 2-0 victory over Michigan State that showed a resiliency not seen in recent years.

After only appearing in one Big Ten conference tournament in the last five years, the 2-0 start might have fans thinking the team has arrived.

Over that five-year span the Gophers have won more than two conference games once, in 2005, when they won six.

A win against a quality opponent like Illinois would go a long way for a program attempting to climb the ranks of the Big Ten.

“It would mean a lot to everyone if we could go 3-0,” junior Lindsey Schwartz said.

Schwartz added that the offense will have to finish their scoring chances.

“They’re a good possession team so we’re focused on our one-on-one pressure,” she said.

Minnesota will need momentum heading into the toughest part of the schedule. After the Illini come an improved No. 3 regionally ranked Indiana team, No. 8 nationally ranked Purdue, No. 7 regionally ranked Ohio State and juggernaut Penn State.

Beating teams like Michigan and Michigan State could be a good start to becoming a contender.