In her first soccer game as a 6-year-old, Gophers senior Mikki Denney says she had no clue what was happening on the field.
She was so misguided, in fact, that her father — who Denney says is “super-competitive” — actually left the match, embarrassed that his young daughter had not yet picked up the finer points of the game.
“He was like, You were so bad, I just had to leave,'” Denney said. “Isn’t that terrible?”
Terrible? Maybe, but things have changed. His early concerns aside, Denney has recovered nicely from his early discomfort, so much that he apparently can’t get enough of watching his daughter play.
Along with his wife, Bonnie, and a good chunk of the Mikki Denney fan club, Mike Denney makes the six-hour trip from Omaha, Neb., to St. Paul for every Gophers home game.
But Denney’s path to Minnesota was even longer, with a stop in college soccer’s mecca along the way.
As a high school junior — fresh off a pair of Nebraska state titles in her freshman and sophomore years — Denney headed to North Carolina to participate in UNC coach Anson Dorrance’s developmental camp.
Much to her surprise, Dorrance asked Denney if she would be interested in playing college soccer for North Carolina, then in the midst of winning an unprecedented nine straight NCAA titles.
“I was just in awe,” Denney said. “Every little kid dreams about going to North Carolina. Of course I was going to go.”
But everything was not so dreamy with the Tar Heels. Denney suffered a stress fracture in her freshman year at UNC and was redshirted. Then in 1993, a lack of playing time and team chemistry — “It just wasn’t there,” Denney said — led her to consider her options.
With Dorrance’s support, Denney checked out several schools: Michigan, Creighton, Vanderbilt and Minnesota.
“When I visited, (Gophers senior) Erin Hussey was my recruiter,” Denney said. Hussey showed Denney around campus, talked about the program and introduced her to a pair of future teammates, Jennifer Walek and Jennifer McElmury.
“They were two of the nicest, most genuine people I had ever met,” Denney said. “They said they’d love to have me play (at Minnesota) … and just made me feel so at home.”
Hussey even volunteered herself as a roommate, and the deal was done.
“Playing at North Carolina was a great opportunity and I learned a ton,” Denney said. “It was awesome to be there, but I like this team a lot better. I think this is where I’m supposed to be.”
Since the transfer, Denney has been a mainstay in the Gophers backfield, starting every game since the start of the 1994 season — a 60-match streak. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Denney will graduate from the program this year with the team record for consecutive starts.
A defender doesn’t get the attention of a forward or midfielder. The glamour is in the goals, and Denney doesn’t score many — only one in her career, this season against Wisconsin. But she’s still managed to set herself apart, coach Sue Montagne said.
“Mikki is one of the most intense, tenacious players I’ve ever known,” Montagne said. “She not only wins the ball, she keeps it and starts the attack.”
Denney will play her last game on the St. Paul Campus Soccer Field this weekend, along with Hussey, fellow defender Allison Johnson and goalkeeper Teresa O’Hearn. At this point, she said, the fact she’s nearing the end of her soccer career seems a little overwhelming.
“It’s going to be so sad,” Denney said. “I think about all the games and times we’ve had together. (Playing soccer) is such a big part of your life, then it’s over.”
But there’s still some soccer left to be played. The Big Ten tournament begins next weekend in Columbus, Ohio, and the Gophers are ready for it, playing some of their best soccer of the season.
The team set some lofty goals this summer and hasn’t shied away from them. “Of course, everybody wants to win the national championship,” Denney said. “But you never want to say that.”
Time will tell, and advancing into the NCAA tournament is something with which Denney has experience. She has a couple of NCAA soccer championship rings from her days at North Carolina, though she doesn’t wear them very often.
But she does pull them out once in a while, to show her interested teammates. The rings symbolize a goal that, for the Gophers, may finally be within reach.
“I’ve got a really good feeling about the Big Tens,” Denney said. “I think we can go really far.”