Gophers open NCAA tournament at home Friday

by Austin Cumblad

The Minnesota womenâÄôs soccer team gathered on an unseasonably warm Wednesday for its second-to-last practice before the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Friday night should feel more like November. Forecasts call for a high of 44 degrees, and it will likely be significantly cooler for a 6 p.m. kickoff. But no matter, by all indications, this Gophers team has ice in its veins.

Being in the tournament âÄúdoesnâÄôt change anything,âÄù senior midfielder Katie Bethke said. âÄúWeâÄôre just training the way we have been the last couple weeks, having good practices and making sure weâÄôre crisp.âÄù

Minnesota opens its postseason run against Missouri Valley Conference regular season and tournament champion Creighton. And thanks to NCAA guidelines, it will do so at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium, even though No. 9 Texas A&M is the seeded team in the region.

So, if the Gophers manage to match the programâÄôs deepest postseason run, they will do so again in front of their home crowd. They hosted the first and second round in 2008 when they advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history.

Paradoxically, they both are and arenâÄôt looking that far ahead.

âÄúI definitely think we have the talent and the depth to go far in this tournament,âÄù Bethke said, but quickly returned to first things first. âÄúWe have to make sure we look at it one game at a time.âÄù

That one game is against a Bluejays team with a quartet of dangerous goalscorers and just three losses this season. Sophomore Brittney Neumann leads the team with nine goals, one of four players with seven or more. They qualified for the tournament by avenging their lone regular season conference loss to Missouri State in the final of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. ItâÄôs the programâÄôs fifth appearance since 2002.

But, as opposed to the eight Gophers opponents that made the postseason, Creighton has faced no NCAA qualifiers this year. And only the BluejaysâÄô four seniors were part of the teamâÄôs most recent tournament trip, in 2007.

Indeed, in terms of experience, Minnesota has the decided upper hand. Eleven current players were a part of 2008âÄôs Sweet 16 team; two seniors âÄî Julie Rezac and Molly Rouse âÄî scored to help the Gophers get there. Two more seniors, Bethke and defensive midfielder Kylie Kallman, were named Second Team All-Big Ten on Wednesday.

And the veterans are marching Minnesota confidently toward Friday.

âÄúTheyâÄôre doing a great job of staying cool, calm and confident,âÄù head coach Mikki Denney Wright said. âÄúWe have great leadership and kids that have been in a lot of important games.âÄù

In the NCAA tournament, every game is more important than the last. ItâÄôs also tougher. Chances are, if the Gophers win Friday, they will face fourth-seeded and ninth-ranked Texas A&M, one of the Big 12âÄôs best. But Minnesota has beaten ranked teams on multiple occasions this season. Plus, in the NCAA tournament, you can basically throw out rankings, Denney Wright said.

âÄúEvery team in the NCAA tournament has great potential,âÄù Denney Wright said. âÄúThere are some favorites out there, but in the early rounds, itâÄôs about whoever gets hot. It can be anyone.âÄù