Gophers soccer team falls hard to rival Wisconsin

by Aaron Kirscht

The largest crowd in Gophers women’s soccer history flocked to St. Paul on Sunday, hoping to catch the latest chapter of the Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry. The games between the Gophers and the Badgers have a reputation for being intense and low-scoring, if not down and dirty.
Not this time. The 1,472 in attendance saw the Badgers (7-2-2, 2-0-1 in the Big Ten) outplay the Gophers (7-3, 1-2) in all facets of the game, winning 3-1 and leaving head coach Sue Montagne questioning her team’s character.
“Frankly, I’m embarrassed,” Montagne said. “It’s embarrassing to be at home with all these fans and to lose a game like this. (The University of Wisconsin-) Madison’s a good team, but this wasn’t a 3-1 sort of game.”
Montagne lamented the Gophers’ porous defense and the opportunities missed by the offense. Jennifer McElmury, for example, had several shots at an open goal, but all sailed over the net.
Montagne also sharply criticized the season-long performance of the Gophers’ goalkeepers, veteran Teresa O’Hearn and newcomer Dana Larson. “Right now, we feel like neither goalkeeper is stepping up and making (who to start) an easy decision. We’re really disappointed in their play right now.” O’Hearn was given the starting nod, but was replaced at half time with Larson, who gave up the game-winning goal.
Each team had 11 shots on goal, but the Badgers controlled the play from beginning to end. Most of the action took place in the Gophers’ zone, as Wisconsin out-raced Minnesota’s defense to the ball.
Wisconsin scored early — 1995 all-Big Ten Heather Maier struck first just three minutes into the game — and, as it turned out, often. The Gophers’ Mikki Denney tied the game early in the second half, but Maier scored her second goal of the game less than a minute later, all but defeating the Gophers’ hopes for a come-from-behind victory.
“I could just feel the weight of the team go down after that second goal,” Denney said. “As soon as we scored, I was thinking `We’re in this, we’re in this, we’re in this.’ Everyone was really excited. But we didn’t even get to celebrate before they stuffed another one in our end.”
Wisconsin put the game away for good seven minutes later, and evened the series with Minnesota at 3-3. Their next possible meeting won’t be until the Big Ten tournament in November.
But that rematch is a long way off, and with losses to Penn State and Wisconsin — both undefeated in conference play — Minnesota will have to rely on other teams to knock the conference leaders out of the top slots.
For now, Montagne sees enough to be concerned with at home, not worrying about the fates of other teams. “Maybe you have to hit rock bottom before you start climbing the ladder again,” Montagne said. “But I don’t think there’s some dramatic change we can make, like pulling someone off the bench, that will make it happen for us.
“I think it’s something the players have to find within themselves to get us out of this slump.”
Still, one player who likely could have made a difference is last season’s Big Ten Player of the Year Jennifer Walek. “(The Gophers) not having her is a big plus for us,” Maier said. “It’s too bad, because she’s one of the greatest players I know.”
Maier said the Walek-less Gophers played differently than in past contests. “I think they were kind of sitting back on us, and we just came out and played great in the first 10 minutes.”
Denney traces the Gophers sluggish performance to the practice field. “I think it all starts in practice. I don’t see us playing consistently and aggressively enough in practice. And if you don’t do it during practice it’s not going to come out in a game.”
The weekend wasn’t all bad for Minnesota, they beat a much-improved Northwestern team on Friday, giving the Gophers their lone Big Ten victory on the conference schedule.
Minnesota continued their slow-starting ways — going scoreless in the first half for the sixth time this season — but rebounded nicely with Erin Hussey’s late-looping game-winner. Hussey’s goal was her sixth, putting her only two-shy of her total from last season.
Northwestern kept it close, causing Minnesota fits at several moments late in the game. “We lost our composure in the last 10 minutes when they pulled their stopper and started attacking the ball,” Hussey said.
The Gophers will go on the attack again next weekend, hosting their third-straight home game against Minnesota-Duluth.
In the meantime, Montagne will try to prop up the team after their difficult loss to Wisconsin. A string of wins and a little help could put the Gophers back in the hunt for the regular-season Big Ten title.
“We’re a roller-coaster team right now and we’re not being consistent,” Montagne said. “This is our fourth year; we should be consistent, and we’re not.”
“You have to make your own luck, and we’re not making it at all.”

Wisconsin 1 2 — 3
Gophers 0 1 — 1

First Half: Wisc. — Maier (Stewart) 3:05.
Second Half: Minn. — Denney (M. Johnson) 48:25. Wisc. — Maier (Willihnganz) 49:17. Wisc. — Strey (Maier) 56:58.