Minnesota looks to close out season strong

Minnesota will play six of its final eight games of the season at home.

Ben Gotz

A little more than halfway into the season, the Gophers are making the final push to increase their odds of getting to the NCAA tournament.

The team is ranked 79th in the latest women’s soccer RPI rankings, which would put it slightly outside the tournament “bubble” right now. But head coach Stefanie Golan isn’t sweating the team’s current ranking.

“I don’t care about it until the end of the year,” Golan said of the RPI. “Our conference is strong enough where we have so many opportunities to climb that ladder. Our focus is where we finish.”

Ratings percentage index (RPI) is a statistic used to rank teams based on their record and strength of schedule.

The Gophers will have plenty of chances to improve their ranking with the remainder of conference play, as six of their next eight opponents currently have higher RPI rankings. One game includes a showdown with a top-10 opponent this weekend, No. 7 Penn State.

While the schedule may appear daunting, the Gophers aren’t shying away from tough opponents like Penn State and rival No. 12 Wisconsin.

“Those are always big games,” senior captain Katie Thyken said. “Those are always really tough games, but those are the games you look forward to because you bring your best.”

One factor that will help the Gophers in both matchups is that they get to face both opponents at home. After being on the road for eight of their first 11 games, the team will be at home for six of their last eight.

“We’re super excited to be home. The atmosphere at [Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium] is amazing,” senior captain Becca Roberts said. “Just being home, it’s a different feeling. You have a lot of energy, and it’s nice to be in your own bed.”

The team didn’t have a lot of experience under its belt coming into the season, with 16 underclassmen and 19 total players who had spent less than a season with the team before the 2014 season.

“The biggest thing to this point is that we are growing,” Golan said. “It’s a process, and we’re very optimistic about what we’ve got and where we’ve gotten through the process to this point. We think we’ve got a really good group and can finish strong.”

Members of the team pointed to the Gophers’ 1-0 loss against Iowa as one of the first times the team put together a full 90 minutes of solid play. While the Gophers didn’t get the result they wanted that day, they proceeded to go on the road, earning their first Big Ten sweep of the season last weekend.

“We’re growing every game,” Thyken said. “We’re connecting way better than we were at the beginning of the season, and now we can just focus on the little things.”

For the Gophers, those little things could lead to one big thing: their first back-to-back NCAA tournament appearance since 1999.

“I know the girls are jacked up,” Golan said. “They’re excited; they’re still very positive. They feel very good about the growth that they’ve seen.”