U refocuses for NCAAs

Aaron Kirscht

When she heard the news that Minnesota would play Nebraska in the first round of the NCAA soccer tournament, Gophers senior Mikki Denney thought she was dreaming.
A native of Omaha, Neb., Denney had been waiting for this game all year long.
“I didn’t think we were going to go (to the tournament),” she said, “and then all of a sudden we’re going and we’re playing Nebraska? I was thinking, This can’t be real.'”
But deep down, Denney saw it coming. Early in the season she made a prediction of what lay ahead for the Gophers.
“I was saying we were going to get a bid and we’d play Nebraska,” Denney said. “We’d play on Friday, and the next day there would be a Cornhuskers football game. That would be the best. We live for the Cornhuskers out there.”
As it turns out, Denney’s dream match-up will take place on Sunday, not Friday, and the Nebraska football team will be kicking off at Iowa State on Saturday.
But it’s not a complete bummer.
The Gophers are back where they wanted to be all season — in the NCAA tournament — and have the opportunity to improve on last year’s disappointing first round loss to Wisconsin. Denney says the team has no more excuses to fall back on should they falter against Nebraska.
“We’re not young; it’s not the beginning of the season,” she said. “We have the experience. We’ve been here before, and we know what to expect. We have no excuse not to come out and be at the top of our game.
“We just have to get out there and kick their butts.”
Nebraska has been kicking a little butt of their own this season, compiling a spotless 21-0 record. The No. 6 Huskers have whipped their opponents by a combined score of 86-12, and boast three players with 16 or more goals.
“They just get on the field and fight,” Denney said. “And that’s the only way we’re going to win: We have to fight back. We’re not going to win with skills. But it’s not about skills. It’s about yourself, about what you want to accomplish.”
Matching up with Nebraska’s free-wheeling offense will be a formidable challenge for No. 18 Minnesota, which plays a quick-passing possession offense. But assistant coach Barb Wickstrand said the Gophers will stick to their game plan.
“If we’re able to use the whole width of the field and stay composed,” Wickstrand said, “I think we’ll do well.”
Minnesota has been in this position before against North Carolina and Portland. The Gophers dropped a close 3-2 match to then-No. 4 Portland in the fifth game of the season, and played tight with No. 2 North Carolina but lost 2-0 three weeks ago.
The Gophers played in-your-face defense against UNC before tiring late in the game. That experience — and strategy — could serve them well against Nebraska.
“We’ve been trying to do that all year, sometimes better than others,” Wickstrand said. “Hopefully on Sunday we’ll put it all together.”
Denney, who has been to the NCAA tournament three times (twice with North Carolina before she transferred to Minnesota in 1993), said the tournament is something to be savored. But she wonders whether her team realizes it.
“How many people would love to be out on the field? How many teams would give anything to be there?” Denney said. “Sometimes you lose sight of that. Right now we’re not acting like we love it.”
Wickstrand, however, said she thinks the Gophers are ready.
“We have nothing to lose in that we’re playing the No. 6 team in the country,” Wickstrand said. “But we have a lot to prove to the NCAA — that they chose a good team and that we deserve to be there.”