U opens Big Ten soccer season against Purdue

After a 3-1-1 nonconference season, Minnesota opens Big Ten play tonight at home against the Boilermakers.

Adam Fink

And now the tougher test begins.

After defeating Buffalo, Ohio and Western Illinois, which all combine to a record of 7-10, Minnesota faces the Big Ten.

With the first part of the season complete, the Gophers (3-1-1) start Big Ten play tonight against Purdue at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium and are determined to make a positive statement to the rest of the conference. Minnesota also faces Indiana on Sunday.

“We haven’t proven anything yet,” coach Barbara Wickstrand said. “We have to prove we are a good team, which we are. We have the talent, but it is in the kids’ hands.”

Physically, the team has no reason to worry this weekend. However, the Gophers’ mentality was shaken this week.

Forward Kaitlin Neary was struck by a truck Monday afternoon near the Bierman athletic complex while riding her bike. Neary will be out for four to eight weeks while recovering from a broken collarbone and a right-knee contusion.

Replacing Neary in the starting lineup will be senior Anna Nudell Lee. Lee started all 19 games last season.

Wickstrand and captain Amanda McMahon believe the focus has returned since earlier in the week.

The team was in high spirits Wednesday, appearing relaxed and anxious for Friday’s game with the Boilermakers (4-1-1).

“We had a great practice where everything seemed to be working,” McMahon said. “We haven’t lost momentum. I think the team is ready to play and anxious to prove itself.”

Wickstrand agrees the team has the talent and motivation to finish in the top half of the conference.

The fourth-year coach’s main concern is the first 10 minutes of the game.

“It’s the first game of the Big Ten,” Wickstrand said. “Nerves run wild.”

Adding to the nerves is the potential for a near sellout crowd. Capacity at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium is 1,000, although the all-time high attendance is 1,432, set in 1999. The Gophers ticket office is expecting at least 800 fans in attendance. Minnesota averaged only 567 fans per home game last season.

And if the Gophers require any extra motivation, they need only look to the opponents’ bench.

Purdue defeated Minnesota 1-0 in a foul-plagued, defensive contest on a wet and sloppy field last year in West Lafayette, Ind., that left a negative feeling among Gophers players.

“Some things were said about us and our program (after that game),” McMahon said. “We didn’t appreciate it.”

The Boilermakers were eliminated in the second round of the NCAA tournament last year, and want to build on that success.

A Purdue tendency that worries Wickstrand is its ability to put pressure on the goal, led by forward Annette Kent. The senior notched seven goals and four assists last season. Wickstrand put extra work into playing team defense at practice this week.

Boilermakers coach Robert Klatte is ready to see how his squad measures compared to a “much-improved” Minnesota team.

“We have had too many mistakes thus far,” Klatte said. “I think we will be ready. It’s going to be good for both teams to find out where they stack up in the conference.

“We don’t want to start the Big Ten season with a loss, just as much as they don’t.”

For one team, a statement will be made.