New coach hopes to rebuild team

Bob Wothe

Mikki Denney Wright was here for the glory days of Minnesota soccer. Now she wants to bring them back.

This time, though, the two-time second-team All-Big Ten selection and former team captain who led the Gophers to a Big Ten Championship and a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances will be in her first year as head coach.

She certainly has her work cut out for her. The Gophers haven’t made the Big Ten Tournament since 2000 and have compiled a 26-43-4 record since. They struggled through last year’s 6-10-2 campaign, which culminated in the decision to not renew the contract of then-coach Barbara Wickstrand.

But Denney Wright said she won’t allow her characteristic optimism to be dampened by the team’s recent struggles. This year, the team is off to a 3-2 start.

“It’s a very realistic goal that we can win the Big Ten,” Denney Wright said. “But I must say that this is the toughest year in the Big Ten I’ve seen in a long time.”

Defending champion Penn State is aiming for its seventh-straight Big Ten title and is currently fifth in the NSCAA/Adidas National Rankings. Illinois and Wisconsin are also in the top 20.

The Gophers are set to compete, though, with 14 players and eight starters returning from last year. But they’ll largely be competing on the road, where they play six of their first seven and 11 of 18 games.

Considering that the Gophers haven’t won a Big Ten road match in nearly three years, winning the conference should be particularly difficult.

Despite the Gophers’ road struggles, All-Big Ten freshman Hailey Lentsch, who led the team with seven goals last year, and junior Becky Dellaria, the team’s second-leading scorer with five goals, are looking to turn the trend around. Senior transfer forward Regina Moench, a three-time all conference honoree at Creighton, adds yet another threat on the front line.

“Our attackers are simply amazing,” Denney Wright said. “We play a 4-3-3 formation, and that really puts a lot of pressure on the other team.”

The Gophers defense has a collective 166 games under its belt and will be bolstered by the return of Tierney Palmer-Klein, who sat out last season while studying abroad in Chile.

Junior defender Nicki Burnie got off to a particularly strong start, receiving all-tournament team honors at the Alabama-Birmingham Classic.

“I think Nicki and Palmer are going to have great years on the back row,”

Denney Wright said. “Those are the two players I’m really looking for breakout years from.”

At keeper, the team has been very pleased with the addition of Wisconsin-Milwaukee junior transfer Molly Schneider, who got off to a solid start, shutting out her first two opponents.

But the Gophers aren’t without their weak spots.

“Midfield is a big issue for us, along with depth,” she said. “We’ve been moving forwards back to midfield, shuffling it all around, trying to find something that will work.”

Schneider said she is confident that Denney Wright will figure something out, however, and has no doubt about her abilities.

“Coach is a great motivator,” Schneider said. “The team really looks up to her and I think we’ll have a good year together.”