Soccer team gets a bid to NCAAs

Aaron Kirscht

Following Friday’s loss to Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, the fate of the Gophers women’s soccer team seemed certain.
Well, it wasn’t.
Much to the surprise of coach Sue Montagne and her players, the Gophers were handed what Montagne said was a real gift.” Minnesota was granted a return bid to the NCAA Soccer Tournament, beginning this weekend at various sites throughout the country.
Minnesota will play sixth-ranked Nebraska on Sunday at 1 p.m. in Lincoln, Neb. The Cornhuskers are the No. 6 seed in the tournament.
“I spent the day preparing myself for the worst,” Montagne said. “But now there’s a lot of relief and excitement.”
The Gophers (13-6) had good reason to worry. They finished the season with two tough losses to unranked teams (Evansville and Northwestern), and Indiana provided a surprise of its own by winning the Big Ten tournament and earning the automatic bid to the NCAAs.
“A friend and I were going through a bunch of information last night,” senior Erin Hussey said. “I went from thinking we could be in to thinking we were out. I’m totally shocked.”
Women’s athletics director Chris Voelz said Friday that the Gophers’ loss in the first round of the Big Ten tournament made a bid a long shot. But a strong schedule and a season-long national ranking in the Soccer America’s Top 20 Poll bolstered Minnesota’s chances.
The Gophers may have convinced the NCAA selection committee they were worthy of a bid, but now they will have to convince first-round opponent Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers ran roughshod over the Big 12 in their third season as a varsity sport, making it through the regular season with an unblemished 21-0 record. But Montagne said that while Nebraska looks like a strong team on the surface, the Gophers don’t plan to cower in their presence.
“We’ve got to go in there with a lot of pride and play like we belong in the NCAAs,” she said.
This will be Nebraska’s first trip to the tournament. Minnesota lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season to Wisconsin.
During the 1996 season, the Huskers played only one top-20 team — beating No. 7 Texas A&M twice, both times by scores of 1-0. Nebraska’s non-conference schedule also included two games against teams that made the NCAAs, a 3-1 win at Duke and a 3-2 win over Vanderbilt.
Minnesota, meanwhile, posted a 3-5 record against teams invited to the tournament. The Gophers beat Northwestern, Indiana and then-No. 14 Washington. Their losses came against North Carolina (2-0), Portland (3-2), Penn State (3-2), Wisconsin (3-1) and Northwestern (2-1).
In the NCAA soccer tournament, the top eight teams are seeded. Though Notre Dame held the No. 1 ranking for much of the season, North Carolina leapfrogged the Irish and received the top seed. Those two teams are followed by Portland, Connecticut, Santa Clara, Nebraska, Texas A&M and Florida. Notre Dame won the tournament last year, beating Portland 2-1 in the final.
The remaining 24 bids are distributed on an at-large basis. An unprecedented five Big Ten teams — Wisconsin, Penn State, Indiana, Northwestern and Minnesota — made the cut.
“I think that just proves what a strong conference the Big Ten is,” Montagne said.
Indiana enters the NCAA tournament on an impressive streak, with upset wins against Penn State, Northwestern and Wisconsin. The Hoosiers didn’t give up a goal on the way to their first Big Ten championship and NCAA bid.
After ending the regular season on a down note and struggling in the Big Tens, the Gophers could experience the same problems as they head into the NCAA tournament. But Hussey said she doesn’t expect that to happen.
“I think we’ll go to Nebraska and play with a lot of intensity,” Hussey said. “I’m surprised that we’re in, but we’ve expected to be there all season long. Now we just need to get back on track.”