Crucial weekend for Minnesota’s Big Ten Tournament chances

The Gophers are currently 10th in the Big Ten standings, ahead of only Iowa.

by Paul Cordes

Coming off its first Big Ten win of the season, the Minnesota soccer team has no easy assignment against No. 11 Penn State.

Tonight’s game against the Nittany Lions will be the only Big Ten game for the Gophers this weekend, as they will travel to South Dakota State for a nonconference game Sunday.

Minnesota (7-6-1 overall, 1-5-0 Big Ten) could be facing its biggest test of the year against Penn State. The Nittany Lions are a perennial leader in the conference and this year has been no exception.

Penn State (8-3-3, 4-1-1) leads in the Big Ten in points with 75, goals with 27 and goals per game with an average of 1.93 per game. That could spell trouble for a Gophers defense that has given up eight goals in its last three games.

Coach Mikki Denney Wright said that if her team doesn’t play up to the best of its capabilities, it could face some trouble.

“If we play the uncharacteristic defense like we’ve been playing, they could take advantage of it,” she said. “We need to score some points against them too. We really have to attack hard.”

Denney Wright said a strategy is in place for the Penn State game, which includes both an aggressive attack and a forceful defense. But junior midfielder Renee de St. Aubin said that regardless of the caliber of team, the Gophers’ focus cannot be different.

“We have to go out every game and play the same, regardless if it’s a Penn State (game),” she said. “We have to play our game, and we have to play a full 90 (minutes), and I think we can do well.”

Sunday will be the first nonconference game for Minnesota since Sept. 17, and it will take on a team plagued by losses. The Jackrabbits (3-8-2) are winless in their last nine outings and have been shut out eight times this year.

Freshman midfielder Sara Clancy said she isn’t too worried about whether the game is conference or nonconference; she just wants to win.

“We have to focus on winning games,” she said. “That has to be the most important thing for us right now.”

Whether the game is conference or nonconference is also the last thing Denney Wright is thinking about. She said she wants to get in as many games as possible and, as long as her team is playing, she’ll be happy.

“The more games we play, the more opportunities we’re going to get,” she said. “And it’s just important for us to get as much playing time as possible.”

But time is running out for the Gophers. The Big Ten Tournament is three weeks away and, after this weekend, Minnesota will have just three conference games left to play.

The Gophers are sitting at 10th in the Big Ten, with Iowa the only team with a worse record. Only the top eight teams from the conference will receive a bid to the tournament.

Much of Minnesota’s fate is in its own hands. Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State are the last three Big

Ten opponents left on its schedule, and they are currently sitting at seventh, eighth and ninth, respectively, in the conference. The Gophers would have to win their final three games and also hope for some losses by those three teams.

Although St. Aubin’s focus is still positive, she said the team understands it has to start winning.

“I think it’ll be nice to have a little break from the Big Ten, even though we still need to win Sunday,” she said. “The pressure is a little bit off, but we’ll be ready to go after Michigan and Michigan State next weekend.”