Big Ten tourney offers U soccer last shot at redemption

by Jim Schortemeyer

The Big Ten women’s soccer second season begins Thursday with the opening of the Big Ten Tournament.
At stake is a free ticket to the first round of next weekend’s NCAA championships. But the top seeds at the Big Ten weren’t favored at the start of the season.
Minnesota was at or near the top of that list. The Gophers were last year’s regular season champions, and were ranked in the top 25 in the preseason. But things didn’t quite work out the way they’d hoped.
Minnesota had a streaky Big Ten season and finished in sixth place. Penn State holds the top spot, with surprise finishers Wisconsin in second.
The Lions walked a thin line to the championship, narrowly beating Minnesota 3-2 in overtime a month ago.
“They really had a charmed season,” Indiana coach Joe Kelley said.
The third-seeded Hoosiers won the tournament in 1994, and Kelley knows this year’s championship will be a fracas.
“It’s wide open this year,” Kelley said. “Every team has a shot at winning it.”
Indiana takes its first shot Friday against Minnesota in what promises to be a hard-fought game. The Gophers beat the Hoosiers 1-0 in their only meeting of the season.
While Kelley characterized it as a “back-and-forth” game, Minnesota captain Vanessa Touset had a differing opinion.
“We definitely outplayed them,” Touset said. “We just had a hard time putting the ball in the back of the net.”
Differing interpretations aside, both sides agree that they have formidable opponents this weekend.
“Minnesota’s always tough, and they’re one of the best teams we’ve played this year,” Kelley said.
The Gophers will be especially tough, coming off a stretch of six consecutive wins, while Indiana has struggled of late.
The Hoosiers lost 1-0 to San Francisco (6-9-1) on Saturday, and needed overtime to get past St. Mary’s (6-10) on Sunday.
With a 5-2-1 all-time lead in the series, it appears that Minnesota coach Sue Montagne has an advantage over Indiana. But Montagne said all-time records won’t mean much when you’re playing the game.
“We’ve always battled,” Montagne said. “Every time we play, it’s never a blowout. It’s always a very physical game.”
Senior midfielder Kelly Shea might come to the Gophers’ aid. Shea tore a tendon in her foot during a game against Michigan more than a month ago.
Shea had a light workout with coaches Monday before practicing with the full team on Tuesday. It’s unknown if the defense-minded midfielder will play against the Hoosiers, but Shea indicated the coaches will try to work her into the lineup.
As for aspirations of winning the tournament, Montagne said her team needs to improve their second half play if they are to win it all.
“One of the main things we have to do is play for 90 minutes,” Montagne said. “In the second half, teams come at us pretty hard.”
If the Gophers beat Indiana, they’ll play the winner of the Wisconsin-Ohio State game. And that’s a formidable task for the Gophers.
Minnesota played possibly its worst game of the season against Wisconsin in a 2-0 loss. That loss set off a stretch where Minnesota lost four of the next six games.
Even the seventh seed Buckeyes wouldn’t be a cakewalk. The Gophers lost to Ohio State 1-0 this season.
Coaches agree this year’s tournament is the most wide-open in years. With every team in the top four seeds having beaten the other during the regular season, everybody has their eyes on the title.
Perhaps Minnesota has a little more on the line than some of the other teams. Senior captain Touset and the rest of the Gophers feel they underachieved in the regular season, and are out for a little redemption.
“I’m just anxious to prove a point and win,” Touset said.