Gophers get at-large bid, will play at home

by Austin Cumblad

The Minnesota womenâÄôs soccer team had nearly 72 hours between their regular season finale and MondayâÄôs NCAA tournament selection show.

Most were spent tensely monitoring conference championships around the country, perpetually evaluating the best remaining teams as one-by-one, squads played their way into the field of 64.

Then, shortly after 3:30 p.m., Minnesota and its maroon-and-gold âÄúMâÄù flashed unceremoniously on the screen during ESPNUâÄôs selection show, announcing to an anxious team that it had been granted one of 34 at-large bids, the seventh in program history.

Senior Katie Bethke and several of her teammates, previously glued to the TV at the âÄúsoccer houseâÄù where some of the players live, poured onto the street.

âÄúWe ran out of the house and started screaming,âÄù Bethke said. âÄúWe probably had noise complaints from the neighbors.âÄù

Initially overlooked in the celebration was more good news: Minnesota will actually host first and second round games at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium.

âÄúWe didnâÄôt see that at first on the screen,âÄù Bethke said. âÄúThen we ran back to the TV and saw. To be able to play at home one last time as a senior âĦ is just an amazing feeling.âÄù

The NCAA tries to minimize the number of flights required for opening round games, so fourth-seed Texas A&M will be one of only three seeded teams not hosting its first round game. The Aggies will play North Dakota State and the Gophers will face Creighton.

In 2009, the Gophers were the highest-rated team in terms of RPI not to make the tournament, just a year removed from a run to the Sweet 16. Returning to the NCAAs âÄúhas been over us since we didnâÄôt see our name come up last year,âÄù Bethke said.

Yet even after a 12-5-3 season that included an 11-game unbeaten streak and three wins over ranked opponents, MinnesotaâÄôs postseason fate was shrouded in uncertainty until Monday afternoon. The Gophers were the epitome of a bubble team, hovering just outside of the RPI top 30, which all but guarantees a trip to the postseason, and struggling through a four-game winless streak late in the season. Fortunately, they finalized their resume with two important wins at Northwestern and Indiana.

âÄúYou can never feel confident when youâÄôre on the bubble,âÄù head coach Mikki Denney Wright said, but added, âÄúThe group worked really hard after the bitterness of last year to turn a corner.âÄù

Especially MinnesotaâÄôs seven seniors, who played with urgency all year toward the singular goal of returning to the tournament, Denney Wright said.

âÄúThis year, we have something to prove to the committee,âÄù Bethke said. âÄúWeâÄôre going to show them why they should have put us in the NCAAâÄôs last year as well.âÄù

They Gophers join five other Big Ten squads in the field âÄî conference co-champions Ohio State and Penn State, Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan.

âÄúI think we can go really far,âÄù sophomore forward Allie Phillips said. âÄúIf we start winning some games, I think weâÄôre going to go really far because this team has a lot of potential.âÄù