Gophers will start Big Ten play with Iowa

The Gophers enter Thursday’s game against the Hawkeyes with a record of 6-2-1.

Brittany Storoz

In the 46th minute of MinnesotaâÄôs final Big Ten game of 2008, then-freshman Tamara Strahota blasted the matchâÄôs lone goal past Iowa goalkeeper Emily Moran . The 1-0 victory, paired with an unlikey loss by Penn State, secured the Gophers a share of the 2008 Big Ten title. Minnesota will look to open up the 2009 Big Ten season in a similar fashion at home against none other than Iowa on Thursday, Sept. 24. The Gophers are carrying a 6-2-1 record into the Big Ten, which head coach Mikki Denney Wright says is the most difficult it has been in years. âÄúThis is as tough as the Big Ten has ever been,âÄù Denney Wright said. âÄúLegitimately we probably have âĦ six teams getting rankings in certain polls, and that may be the first time IâÄôve ever seen that.âÄù In the latest NSCAA national rankings, three Big Ten teams were ranked in the top 25. Purdue was No. 11, followed by Indiana (No. 22) and Ohio State (No. 25). âÄúThe Big Ten is doing super well in rankings, who they play, and what kind of wins theyâÄôre coming out with,âÄù assistant coach Krystle Kallman said. âÄúAll the teams are doing so well that we donâÄôt know how weâÄôre going to compete with one another.âÄù Penn State, which shared the Big Ten title with Minnesota last year, boasts 11 consecutive Big Ten titles dating back to 1998 . This year, however, the Nittany Lions are not ranked or receiving votes going into conference play. Penn State handed the Gophers one of their two conference losses in 2008, shutting them out 2-0 . Michigan State claimed the other win over Minnesota last year, also 2-0, and looks to be fierce again in 2009 with senior forward Lauren Hill leading the conference with eight goals and two assists for 18 points . For Minnesota, Denney Wright said she foresees junior forward Katie Bethke being a dangerous player in the Big Ten, as she is already proving a gifted playmaker. Bethke is second in the Big Ten for total shots with 38, just two behind Michigan StateâÄôs sophomore forward Laura Heyboer . Her six goals have her tied at third behind Hill (8) and IowaâÄôs junior forward Keli McLaughlin (7). Defensively, Minnesota is tied with Indiana with five shutouts, second to Ohio State, which has seven. Redshirt freshman goalkeeper Cat Parkhill has given up six goals this season, putting her fourth in the Big Ten in goals against. Minnesota won a pair of lopsided games in nonconference play, both by a four goal margin, but itâÄôs unlikely that will happen during conference play, where games have a history of going down to the wire. In 2008, Minnesota snuck away with wins in overtime against Indiana and double overtime against Purdue . None of the Gophers Big Ten games since 2006 have been decided by more than two goals. âÄúI think everyone is feeling the pressure but nobody really talks about it,âÄù Strahota said. âÄúWe have to have the confidence on the inside to bring it on the outside.âÄù Strahota said the team will especially be working on set pieces, crosses and defensive shape leading up to the Big Ten opener, but will continue building on the teamâÄôs strengths as well. âÄúWe donâÄôt reinvent the wheel for Big Tens, we just continue to work on the pieces to get better each week,âÄù Denney Wright said. Kallman said being the reigning Big Ten champions hasnâÄôt added additional pressure to the team, but the girls will have to prove themselves again to beat the teams that are gaining more national recognition. âÄúMinnesota soccer, in general, kind of sees itself as an underdog,âÄù Kallman said. âÄúThatâÄôs how we like it.âÄù