Gophers start Big Ten play with target on their back

Austin Cumblad

The Gophers womenâÄôs soccer team knows what itâÄôs like to get up for a big opponent. They already knocked off a pair of nationally ranked teams in 2010, each win a potentially critical step on the path back to the NCAA tournament. But thanks to an 8-1-1 record in early season games, the Gophers are ranked 18th in the country by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, higher than any other conference team. For the time being, the tables are turned; itâÄôs Minnesota with the target on its back. And this weekend, the Gophers face two of the hottest teams in the Big Ten. Minnesota opens conference play tonight at Iowa (7-2-0 overall). Its Big Ten home opener is Sunday at 1 p.m. against No. 20 Illinois (7-1-0). âÄúItâÄôs going to be one of the best Big Ten battles I have ever seen,âÄù head coach Mikki Denney Wright said of her expectations for the season. âÄúAnd IâÄôve been part of it as a player and a coach for a long time.âÄù Based strictly on record, the Illini, the Gophers and the Hawkeyes âÄì in that order âÄì are the best teams entering the conference slate. But of course, the story is hardly that simple. For starters, thereâÄôs Penn State to think about. Despite stumbling through a tough non-conference schedule at 2-6-1 , the Nittany Lions are 12-time defending Big Ten champions (Minnesota shared the title in 2008). A year ago, they were 4-4-1 prior to tearing through conference play with an 8-1-1 record. Iowa, meanwhile, was Penn StateâÄôs inverse. The Hawkeyes started 7-2-0 but crumbled in the Big Ten, winning just one game and finishing at the bottom of the standings. Then thereâÄôs the issue of Minnesota and Illinois, chosen by the coaches before the season to finish sixth and seventh respectively in the Big Ten . TheyâÄôre currently the conferenceâÄôs only ranked teams. After four years of it, senior Julie Rezac is used to being underestimated. Since she arrived in 2007, not once have the Gophers failed to outperform their preseason ranking. Incidentally, they were also picked to finish sixth in 2008, when they won the Big Ten regular season title for the first time in more than a decade. âÄúYou would think people would learn after the fourth time itâÄôs happened,âÄù Rezac said. âÄúBut it just gives us a little more ammunition, a little more push to prove them wrong.âÄù Doubters of Minnesota are becoming fewer and farther between. Instead, wins against then-No. 14 San Diego and then-No. 20 South Carolina have earned the Gophers national recognition . Likewise, Illinois turned heads with a 3-0 victory over No. 23 Louisville last weekend that vaulted it into the Top 20. Statistically, SundayâÄôs matchup will pit the Big TenâÄôs best offense against the Big TenâÄôs best defense. Minnesota leads the conference in shots (181), goals (23) and assists (30). The Illini have allowed the fewest goals (3) and recorded the most shutouts (6). Then again, the Gophers have allowed just five goals themselves and have shut out five opponents of their own . And theyâÄôre hardly lacking in confidence. âÄúWeâÄôd like to knock [Iowa and Illinois] down right away,âÄù redshirt freshman Steph Brandt, the conferenceâÄôs reigning Freshman of the Week, said. âÄúAnd if that happens, weâÄôll be in a great spot to keep that wave through the Big Ten.âÄù Said Denney Wright, âÄúwe may be playing for the Big Ten championship, you just donâÄôt know. This could [decide] the championship this weekend. We have to be ready.âÄù