Fifth-place soccer still in Big Ten hunt

by Jim Schortemeyer

The race for the Big Ten soccer championship is as tight as ever. But for once, Minnesota is on the outside looking up.
Four teams are within one game of each other atop the conference standings, with Minnesota (3-2) lurking back in fifth place.
“There’s some really big games still,” Minnesota coach Sue Montagne said. “This last stretch of games is going to be important for everyone in the Big Ten.”
Friday is a veritable judgment day for the Big Ten elite. Michigan, which was ranked as high as No. 10 in the nation this season, will face Indiana, which beat both conference leaders last weekend. In a battle of second-place teams, Northwestern will take on Wisconsin.
And then there’s Minnesota vs. Penn State. The sixth-ranked Lions started out looking like the cream of the Big Ten, but that’s due in part to their schedule — Penn State faced only one team (Indiana) higher than seventh place in the Big Ten.
The Gophers are headed in the opposite direction. After today’s game, they will have faced every team in the top six except Indiana. With its back against the wall, Minnesota knows it can’t afford to be conservative.
“Basically, it’s nothing to lose,” junior goalkeeper Dana Larson said. “I think the reality is that if we lose, it will be very tough to win the Big Ten Championship.”
Penn State is anchored by freshman goalkeeper Emily Oleksiuk. While the Lions have allowed 62 shots-on-goal, Oleksiuk has been stellar in goal. Her 55 saves led the Big Ten, as does her paltry goals-against average of .63.
Oleksiuk’s prowess in the net should provide for an interesting matchup against one of the hottest offenses in the Big Ten.
Junior Nicole Lee and sophomore Laurie Seidl, who share the conference lead in points, will look to exploit a Penn State defense that has been merely average against ordinary opponents in the Big Ten.
On the other end of the field, things match up well for Minnesota. Penn State’s offense ranks sixth in goals scored this season, and has just freshman Bonnie Young in the top 10 in scoring. Young is in a three-way tie for ninth with 15 points.
In goal for the Gophers is the veteran Larson. She’s on a roll after shutting out Michigan last weekend with 10 saves — most of which came near the end of the game.
Larson and the rest of the team seem excited to play Penn State after winning both games last weekend.
“Our hopes are high, and we know it’s a big game,” Larson said.
Although it’s no less important to Minnesota — which needs to win the rest of its four Big Ten games for a title repeat chance — the Ohio State matchup probably won’t be as strong as the one with Penn State.
Sunday’s game against the Buckeyes will be the first home game for Minnesota in two weeks, and all signs are promising for the Gophers. Ohio State (1-4 in the Big Ten) currently resides in eighth place.
The Buckeyes also rank eighth in goals allowed, and goalie Amber Barnes is ninth in the Big Ten with her 1.27 goals against average. But don’t look for Montagne’s Gophers to overlook any team.
“At this point in time, we can’t afford to let down at all,” Montagne said.
After early letdowns against Northwestern and Wisconsin, Montagne feels her team is more prepared now for stiff competition than they were two weeks ago.
“I think we understand how to deal with pressure,” Montagne said. “We all got to a point where it wasn’t fun. It was a lot of work and no enjoyment.”