Lee thrives in Walek’s wake

Aaron Kirscht

Heading into the 1996 season, the defending Big Ten champion Gophers women’s soccer team hoped to follow up their accomplishments with another title and perhaps advance beyond the first round of the NCAA tournament.
But the chances for success in any sport are never set in stone. A simple bounce of the ball — or turn of the knee — can throw even the strongest of teams into a wicked tailspin.
Having already lost sophomore Noelle Papenhausen for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and sophomore Jaime O’Gara until late October with a stress fracture, the Gophers hoped their bad luck had been used up for the season.
But those hopes died in the Sept. 8 game against New Mexico when 1995 Big Ten Player of the Year Jennifer Walek hit the turf with a torn ACL.
The third time, you could say, was the harm.
The injury occurred in the first half of the game. As she headed downfield on a breakaway, Walek was called offsides. Coach Sue Montagne said that after the call, Walek appeared to plant and turn to the right, both to look at the referee who made the call, and check her position on the field. At that point, she crumpled to the field and was carried off minutes later.
Walek’s application to the NCAA for a medical redshirt, which would allow her an extra full year of eligibility, was successful. In a way, the timing couldn’t have been better; had Walek suffered the injury only one game later, her college soccer career could have been over.
As it stands, Walek should return for the 1997 season. Her surgery last week reportedly went well, and the prognosis is that Walek will fully recover.
In the meantime, the team needs to concern themselves with the present. Winning the Big Ten title for a second consecutive year is still a reachable goal, but losing a blue-chip player makes an already-difficult task even harder. In Walek, the Gophers could boast a solid All-America candidate and a team leader.
Those are some big shoes to fill. But with a hardy core of veterans and a banner crop of incoming freshmen to lean on, the team promises to tip the scales in their favor more often than not.
The key, Montagne said, is to avoid making excuses. “We can’t just fold, ” she said.
Having Walek out of the lineup will be tough to overcome, Montagne said, but it isn’t the first time the team has experienced a shuffling of the lineup.
“Starting lineups have changed every game, every year I’ve been coach,” Montagne said. In this case, “everybody just has to pick up the slack.”
First and foremost, that “slack” has fallen on the young shoulders of Nicole Lee, a freshman from Champlin. She’s responded heartily, scoring four times in seven games, including the game-winning goal against No. 19 Washington.
No one on the team is surprised with Lee’s quick rise. “We try not to have too many expectations of the freshman class,” Montagne said, “but (with Walek out) we sure do need her.”
“She’s a great player,” said senior midfielder Erin Hussey of Lee. “We’re getting used to playing with her, and she’s definitely adding a lot.”
Junior midfielder Jennifer McElmury should be able to relate to Lee’s baptism by fire, having started 19 of 20 games en route to winning the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award two seasons ago.
“Nicole’s really stepping up,” McElmury said. “We try to tell her she doesn’t have to do everything, just what she can, on the field. I think she’s doing a great job for us.”
Montagne added that while Lee appeared uncomfortable with the starting position at first, she’s mellowed enough that the team now expects her to excel. “(Lee) has really come in at crucial periods of games and helped us. She’s very calm with the ball at her feet.”
Growing pains notwithstanding, Lee’s early success bodes well for the team and its long-range goals. Crisis averted — for now, anyway.