Hard-fought loss OK with team

Aaron Kirscht

Ending a season with a loss is never easy, and the Gophers women’s soccer team’s loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament Sunday was no exception.
But it could have been worse. The Gophers took on undefeated Nebraska and played as hard as anyone could have expected, toiling through 148 minutes of action on a brisk day in sloppy, wet conditions. The final score was 3-2, and the teams on the field couldn’t have been more well-matched.
“If you have to end your season with a loss, you want to have that kind of loss, where you played as hard as you possibly could,” Coach Sue Montagne said. “Everything we had was left on the field.”
Only two weeks ago the Gophers’ season appeared to be finished following a 2-1 loss to Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. But thanks to a strong schedule and a ranking in the national Top 20 all season, Minnesota was given a second chance by the NCAA.
The Gophers would have preferred a win, of course, but ending the season with a strong performance in Nebraska was better than their lackluster effort against Northwestern. And Montagne said that was especially important for departing seniors Erin Hussey, Teresa O’Hearn, Allison Johnson and Mikki Denney.
“When you’re leaving, you want to leave on as high a note as possible,” Montagne said. “To lose 3-2 with 1:17 left in sudden death is hard to take, but I think they would rather go out that way.”
Even under difficult conditions, both teams put on a performance worth remembering.
“As a coach, I think it was one of the best games I’ve ever seen,” Montagne said. “It was end-to-end action. I thought we had some great chances.”
Now Montagne’s attention will turn to putting together a team to improve on the program’s 1996 success. She will have the enviable task of building a lineup around two Big Ten Players of the Year, Jennifer Walek in 1995 and Jennifer McElmury, who won the award this season.
This would have been Walek’s senior year, but she qualified for another year of eligibility after injuring her knee earlier this season. Noelle Papenhausen (knee) and Jaime O’Gara (stress fracture) will also return from injuries, filling out what looks to be another powerful lineup for the Gophers.
“We’ll have depth back; we’ll have experience back,” Montagne said. “Those players will have had a year of watching, and no matter what anyone says, that’s great for your experience. You get to sit back and see things developing and happening on the field, and hopefully when they step back on the field they’ll be able to use that to their advantage.”
Montagne and her staff have also been searching the high school ranks for talent, a process that began in July and will end with the February signing period. She reported that several recruits have made official visits already, but NCAA rules prohibit Montagne from releasing names.
One-third of the players on the 1996 roster are from out of state, and that number is likely to grow as the Gophers’ program gains more national recognition. But Montagne said native Minnesotans will continue to account for the bulk of the team.
“We’ll continue to recruit nationwide,” she said, “but we want to keep the best Minnesota players at home.”
The Gophers lose their first varsity recruiting class this year, but Montagne expects the program to remain strong.
“I think our expectations will always be high,” Montagne said. “Our goal this year was to make it into the second round of the NCAAs and we’re getting closer to that.
“Next year I’m hopeful that we’ll not only make it to the second round but just keep on going.”