After losing eight letter-winners and a coach, the Gophers soccer team might feel more like a fledgling program instead of team entering its eighth season.
For new coach Barbara Wickstrand, it’s the perfect chance to begin molding Big Ten champions.
As the former assistant to coach Sue Montagne, who left Minnesota to coach at the University of Georgia, Wickstrand knows exactly where to start her reconstruction.
“We have been an underachieving team, and I want us to overachieve and play and win aggressively,” Wickstrand said. “In the past, we’ve been too pretty. Now, when the ball is on the ground, we have to go at all costs to win it. I want us to be more blue-collar.”
Wickstrand has big ambitions and big shoes to fill. Montagne, who coached the Gophers from their inception, led Minnesota to two Big Ten Championships and five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
Despite the legacy, Wickstrand claims the pressure to deliver results comes solely from herself.
“I put pressure on myself regardless of the outside, so I’m not really fazed by it,” Wickstrand said. “I always have higher expectations for myself and the team than everyone else.”
Wickstrand won’t be working on her own. Senior Laurie Seidl, a three-time all-Big Ten selection, will shoulder much of the leadership burden.
Seidl, a forward who is fourth in all-time goal scoring for the Gophers, is chasing former Gopher All-American legend Jennifer McElmury’s record of four consecutive all-Big Ten selections.
Also back for Minnesota is junior defender Juli Montgomery. Montgomery, an all-region and all-Big Ten pick, has started every game of her collegiate career.
Such experience has been valued in the past two weeks as the Gophers entered their nonconference schedule with a scrimmage against top-ranked North Carolina before falling to fifth-ranked Nebraska, 4-0.
“Nonconference games are huge for us,” Seidl said. “The Big Ten conference is very physical, and our nonconference schedule is as tough as I’ve ever seen it.”
Minnesota bounced back from the loss to Nebraska by beating the University of Kentucky 1-0 last Friday.
The match against the 19th-ranked Wildcats was a two-fold success for Minnesota: Kentucky, which is in the same Great Lakes region as Minnesota, was the first ranked team the Gophers have defeated in nonconference play. For Wickstrand, it meant an extra boost of confidence for her players and just the kind of upset she plans on performing regularly.
“We have a competitive schedule, and we should pull off some upsets so we can hopefully get in a better position for postseason play,” Wickstrand said. “Against Kentucky we played like I know we can play, so it really isn’t a big upset, but it’s a great boost for the team.”
Sunday the Gophers fought a physical battle against Iowa State for a 1-0 win, one that Wickstrand felt lacked the offensive drive she has been trying to implement this season.
But Wickstrand knows a new coaching strategy and the possibility of less field time for key players takes time to absorb.
“It will take time for them to get used to my strategy, and we’re dealing with the playing-time loss now, but they understand it’s for the good of the team,” Wickstrand said.
Defender Montgomery, who already has four shots on goal compared to 13 all last season, feels Wickstrand’s style will complement Minnesota’s talent.
“I definitely see a change from last year. There’s a lot more shooting and less hesitation, but I don’t think her style is all that different,” Montgomery said. “When we join the team, we’re all coming from different coaching styles anyway.”
With a 2-1-0 record as the conference schedule approaches, Wickstrand believes hard work in practice will be the key to winning tougher games.
“I see improvement in practice all the time, and their work ethic is amazing. I hope they can step it up like that in all the games we play.”
Monica Wright covers soccer and welcomes comments at [email protected]