After the loss of All-American Jennifer McElmury and her All-Big Ten teammate Jennifer Walek to graduation, the Minnesota women’s soccer team seemed to have more questions than answers to start the season.
The achievements of last year’s team will be tough to top. The 1997 Gophers were undefeated in Big Ten play, made the round of 16 at the NCAA tournament and placed four players on the All-Big Ten first team.
But the loss of Walek and McElmury has not been devastating for Minnesota. The Gophers returned nine of 11 starters from last season and were ranked as high as 15th in one preseason poll.
That meant nothing in the season opener vs. Cincinnati, however. Minnesota played an unusually sloppy game, losing 1-0.
“Our team has a history of being reactive rather than proactive,” defender Vanessa Touset said. “It was just a horrible display.”
Since that game, however, Minnesota has been on a tear. Their record stands at 4-1 overall, 2-0 in the Big Ten, heading into Monday’s game at Washington State. Shot totals of 27, 44, 13 and 30 in consecutive games led to lopsided wins over lackluster opponents.
The bulk of the shots are coming from Laurie Seidl and Nicole Lee, who are quickly emerging as offensive stars for the Gophers — and the heirs apparent to McElmury and Walek.
“I’m excited for them,” coach Sue Montagne said. “They’ve just been working so hard.”
Seidl had two consecutive hat tricks against Minnesota-Duluth and Wisconsin-Green Bay, while Lee scored twice in the Friday win over Big Ten rival Iowa.
Seidl’s 1.8 goals-per-game average leads the nation, and Minnesota ranks sixth in team offense at 4.50 goals a game.
Such gaudy statistics go a long way in proving the old “sometimes the best defense is a good offense” cliche true. Minnesota has allowed no more than five shots-on-goal in its past four games.
“The defense was playing more offense,” defender Erika Kruse said.
In fact, the only person whose numbers have been struggling this fall is goalkeeper Dana Larson, who has faced only 12 shots-on-goal in the past four games combined. Larson led the Big Ten in shutouts (10) and saves (111) last season.
The lack of shots Larson has faced this season indicates the team’s switch from a man-to-man to a zone defense has been successful. Montagne said the move was made to compete with the top teams in the nation.
And judging from the goals the Gophers set, they plan on competing face to face with those teams in the NCAA tournament.
“The team set their own goals: to be consistent, to have 10 to 12 shutouts, and make it to the final four,” Montagne said. “I like that because they’re not just focusing on the final four.”
But with the NCAA tournament two months away, the Gophers have more immediate concerns. Big Ten rivals Northwestern, Michigan and Penn State are all ranked ahead of the Gophers, who slipped to No. 27 in the national poll.
Minnesota plays Washington State on Monday, a team the Gophers narrowly defeated 3-2 last year.
“Washington State is a physical team and have 10 to 12 freshmen,” Montagne said. “It’s very important we play good, strong soccer.”
To keep their win steak alive, the Gophers will have to avoid looking ahead to a pair of pivotal Big Ten matchups this weekend.
Minnesota will play Wisconsin Friday afternoon. The Badgers return nine starters from last year, and could pose a threat to Minnesota. The Gophers beat the Badgers 4-1 last year. Northwestern is currently ranked 19th and has done something Minnesota couldn’t — they beat Cincinnati 2-0.
The Wildcats are 5-0-1 heading into this week, but will have to face 10th-ranked Michigan, which is also undefeated, before the week is out.
The strong competition could be a jolt for the Gophers, who admit their opponents so far have been less than stellar.
“We get to work on passing and ball control things,” Kruse said, “but the downside is they’re not strong so we don’t gain much.”