High expectations for Minnesota soccer in 2009

Gophers seek to defend 2008 Big Ten title as preseason practices begin.

Coming off the best season in the history of Minnesota soccer, the Gophers have high expectations as they begin preseason practices Wednesday. Minnesota finished the 2008 season ranked 15th in the nation by the NCAA/Adidas coachesâÄô poll. The stellar season came to an end at the NCAA Sweet 16 with a narrow loss to top-seeded Notre Dame 1-0 in overtime. End-of-the-year statistics proved 2008 to be a record-breaking season for the team. The Gophers set school records in total wins (22) and winning percentage (.846). Additionally, the 2008 season marked the first time in school history that the Gophers went undefeated (12-0) in home matches. This year, Minnesota will be looking to defend the Big Ten title it captured in 2008 and also surpass its performance in the NCAA tournament. âÄúExpectations are even higher this year because of how well we did last year,âÄù senior Sara Clancy said. âÄúThis will really show how well our program is doing if we can do just as well this year as we did last year.âÄù Head coach Mikki Denney Wright said there were a number of factors that contributed to last yearâÄôs success, but it was a much more gradual process than it seemed. âÄúI think weâÄôve built success over the last five years,âÄù Denney Wright said. âÄúIt wasnâÄôt an overnight success. We slowly got better every single year and had tremendous leadership and team chemistry.âÄù Clancy attributed last yearâÄôs success to the determination of the seniors that year who helped the team win so many matches. âÄúWe had eight girls who really didnâÄôt want to lose and they did everything in their power not to,âÄù Clancy said. âÄúWe also had a lot better team chemistry last year, playing as a team and not individuals, and that will be the same goal for this year.âÄù The team graduated eight seniors last year, including six starters. While Denney Wright said losing six of 11 starters is a tremendous loss, she sees it as an opportunity for new leadership among players who will be able to fill those shoes. âÄúThe Minnesota soccer style will be the same but the individuals will be different,âÄù assistant coach Krystle Kallman said. âÄúPeople will contribute great things in a slightly different way. We have a new group of seniors and a new group of juniors with two years under their belt.âÄù With two seniors and seven juniors returning to play with more experience, Denney Wright said she hopes to measure up to the accomplishments of last year. âÄúOur goal as a program now is sustaining success,âÄù Denney Wright said. âÄúBuilding a competitive program year after year is a great challenge. ItâÄôs one thing to do it one year, but itâÄôs another to do it year after year.âÄù Maintaining success may be a challenge looking at the 2009 schedule, which Denney Wright said may be the hardest Minnesota soccer has ever seen, but the tough matchups are only adding to the excitement among players. âÄúWeâÄôre a program putting ourselves on the line to play a really tough schedule, and our players are excited about it,âÄù Denney Wright said. The season opens Aug. 21 for the Gophers with a home game against South Dakota State , who Minnesota defeated 2-0 on the road last year. The Gophers will also host Tennessee and North Dakota State before beginning conference matchups Sept. 24. âÄúNow that we have more of a tradition of excellence, itâÄôs a treat that weâÄôre playing these games,âÄù Kallman said. Minnesota will have its annual maroon and gold scrimmage at 6 p.m. Thursday at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium . The scrimmage will start the team working together and serve as a first step toward realizing its goals for 2009, Kallman said.