Punchless offense short-circuits season

Bob Wothe

One play appropriately sums up the entire year for Minnesota’s soccer team.

Early in their 4-0 loss to Ohio State on Oct. 15, the Gophers had a chance to bring the game within one, and turn the momentum their way, as Becky Dellaria beat her defender and got past goalkeeper Emily Haynam, who ran out on the play.

Dellaria’s shot on a wide open goal didn’t even make it there – in cold and wet conditions, the ball stopped just feet from the goal line and the Gophers never seriously threatened again.

It has been missed opportunities and a lack of finishing in a similar vein that has plagued the Gophers this season en route to their 7-10-0, 2-8-0 Big Ten record with one nonconference game, against South Dakota State on Friday, remaining.

“We’ve had tons of chances on goal this year,” coach Mikki Denney Wright said. “But we simply haven’t finished and really need to improve that in the future.”

For a team that has looked solid at various times, being assured of finishing with its best record since 2000 – win or lose Friday – is a bit of a disappointment.

“All year we’ve had a problem with not playing how we’re capable and playing down to the competition,” senior Regina Moench said. “We’ve absolutely dominated some games, but lost because we haven’t scored.”

With four of their top five leading scorers from a year ago returning, the Gophers had good reason to believe that they would light up the scoreboard in Denney Wright’s first year at the helm.

But it just didn’t turn out that way.

The Gophers have managed just 15 goals on the season – in contrast to 26 last year. Most troublesome of all, the Gophers managed just five goals in 10 Big Ten matches, getting shut out in six contests.

To further illustrate the difficulty the team has had, the Gophers have scored more than one goal in only three matches, and had a scoreless period of more than 500 consecutive minutes in match time – the equivalent of five-and-a-half games – during one of their most difficult stretches of the season.

The Gophers could ill-afford to go scoreless for so long at the start of the Big Ten season. Beginning with a 2-1 loss to Montana and culminating in a 3-1 loss to Northwestern, the team dropped seven straight matches, including its first six Big Ten contests.

Junior Laura Hoppe, who has started all 17 games this season, said that during the streak the team just was struggling with bad luck.

But bad luck isn’t the only thing to point to. Things have come so difficultly to the Gophers offense that five of their seven wins have come on shutouts from goalkeeper Molly Schneider.

Reasons for optimism

On the bright side, with thanks not only to Schneider -but to the defense as a whole -the team kept almost every match close. While the Gophers gave up four or more goals six times in 2003, the 2004 squad gave up that many just twice.

The Gophers broke up some bad streaks, winning a Big Ten road game for the first time since 2001 and sweeping a road weekend for the first time since 2000, and then doing it again two weeks later.

Similarly, the squad improved its record in games not played at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium to 5-6, which is its best record since 1998, when the team made the NCAA Tournament.

But the Gophers faltered on their home pitch this season, currently holding just a 2-4 mark in front of the second-largest average crowd in the Big Ten.

But with all of the positives, there were still more negatives. Injuries piled up for the Gophers, compounding a depth puzzle that riddled the coaching staff even with a full roster.

“We realize that you really need to have 18 good players in the Big Ten – 11 just isn’t enough,” Denney Wright said. “That’s something we’re definitely taking into account with recruiting.”

With all of the injuries, some younger players – freshmen Allison Kempainen, Hailey McCarthy and Amelia Kasten – have stepped up into big defensive roles in a backfield that has been particularly decimated.

“We think it comes in waves – either you have lots of injuries or none,” Denney Wright said. “This year was pretty bad, so we’re hoping next year should be no injuries.”

If every member of the team is able to fully recover from her injuries, the Gophers will lose just two significant contributors from this year’s team: seniors Moench and defender Jen Cressman.

With four of their five leading scorers set to return again next year and the aforementioned freshmen with a year of experience under their belts, a repeat of this year’s offensive ineptness would again appear unlikely.

“I’m looking forward to next year, I’ll tell you that much,” Denney Wright said. “Once we can get all of our injured players back out there and have another year to work on our system, I think we’ll be a much better team.”