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McCarthy uses back position to take Gophers to the forefront of the Big Ten

Sophomore Hailey McCarthy usually marks the opponent’s best forward.

When second-year Minnesota soccer coach Mikki Denney Wright arrived for her first preseason practice in 2004, defender Hailey McCarthy, then a freshman, was the only Gopher she had never seen play.

But it didn’t take long for Denney Wright to become impressed by the Oregon native.

“She came with the mind-set that she had to prove to us that she was a good player,” Denney Wright said.

“She’s definitely proven it to me.”

At center defense, McCarthy is one of the main reasons Minnesota has been tough to score on this season, often marking the top opposing forward.

And as the Gophers have had an early taste of success, the sophomore figures to be one of the cornerstones for a program trying to become a national powerhouse.

“We truly think she can become the best back in the conference,” Denney Wright said.

At first, Denney Wright said it was not clear where McCarthy would play, switching her from outside defense to center midfield.

But when McCarthy was put at center defense in last year’s game against Northwestern, Denney Wright and McCarthy both said they knew it was the perfect fit.

Playing such a crucial role as an underclassman was shaky at first, McCarthy said, so she worked hard in the offseason to improve her leadership and gain respect from her senior teammates.

“I have so much confidence going into the game knowing that she’s right by me,” senior defender Nicki Burnie said.

“(McCarthy) is one of the hardest, toughest players that I’ve ever met.”

Admitting that she’s not the fastest or strongest on the team, McCarthy said it is a different strength that sets her apart.

“I just play smart,” she said, “I try to be the smartest person on the field and try to get myself in the best position to win the ball.”

Though Denney Wright said she wants her players to think of every game as equally important, McCarthy has the Oct. 28 matchup with No. 1 Penn State circled.

Always wanting to play against the best, McCarthy said she has already looked at highlights of Nittany Lions star Tiffany Weimer, one of the top players in the nation.

“I can’t wait to mark her,” she said.

Although Denney Wright said McCarthy is a strong candidate to make the All-Big Ten team, McCarthy said she is much more concerned with helping Minnesota stay defensively strong.

“My main goal is for our defense to be the best defense in the nation,” she said.

“If my individual play contributes to that, that’s what I want to do.”

And if the Gophers continue winning, McCarthy said, teams should watch out for them in the postseason.

“We’re going to make (the NCAA tournament),” she said. “And if we do, we could be playing for a while.”

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