Twenty-four Minnesota soccer players and a coaching staff prepared week after week to play 10 games against Big Ten foes, all vying for one of eight positions at the single-elimination Big Ten tournament this weekend in Bloomington, Ind.
Now the weekend to let it all hang out is upon them.
A 6-4 record gave the Gophers the fourth seed. Their first-round grudge match against fifth-seeded Ohio State (5-4-1) at 1 p.m. CST today gives Minnesota a chance to do some venting.
The Buckeyes won 2-1 on Oct. 1 at Columbus, a game the Gophers feel they should have won. Minnesota then lost to top-seed and fifth-ranked Penn State on Oct. 3.
How would Minnesota like to return the favor?
“Beat them up one side and down the other,” Gophers coach Sue Montagne said. “We played terrible. The score was close but the game sure wasn’t. They dominated in every facet. Even though we came out and scored first in that game we had no momentum. We need to change the face of the game and control every situation.”
Minnesota would also like to change the face of their last two appearances. The Gophers last won the tournament in ’95, and the last two seasons they finished with ties to Northwestern and Indiana, only to lose in shootouts.
But for that to happen, the Gophers are going to have to buck a trend that has plagued them the entire Big Ten season: beating a team with a winning record in the conference — Minnesota didn’t all year.
No time like the present.
“There probably is more urgency now,” senior forward Nicole Lee said. “We’ll play maybe a little more aggressive than we have in previous games, but for the most part it’s the same as the regular season. The mentality has always been to win and that’s not going to change.”
If Minnesota beats Ohio State on Friday, they play Saturday afternoon against the winner of Friday’s Penn State/Wisconsin game. The championship game will be Sunday at 1 p.m.
It will take a win of revenge against Ohio State, and most likely a monstrous upset of the Lions on Saturday for the Gophers to play on Sunday. But if there’s one thing the Big Ten conference has shown during 10 games, it’s the old cliche: Any team can beat any other team on any given day.
“I’ve been thinking about this game all week since we finished last Sunday’s game,” junior Erin Holland said. “We owe it to (Ohio State). Losing to them was really hard and it would be nice to come back at the end of the season when it counts the most.”
The Nittany Lions repeated as Big Ten regular season champions, going a near-perfect 9-0-1 in the conference. They are considered the clear favorite, and for good reason.
The trio of freshman Christie Welch, senior Courtney Lawson and freshman Bonnie Young combined for 39 goals (22 from Welch) and 19 assists for 97 points.
Not that they need to score much to win. Sophomore goalie Emily Oleksiuk was 16-2-1 for the season, allowing 0.78 goals per game.
“I think you have to say Penn State is the favorite,” Montagne said. “They’re big, strong and fast in every position. If they’re going to go for the ball they’re going to run you over. That’s what they do, run you over.”
Michigan (8-1-1) has the second seed and was the only team to get something other than a loss from Penn State. The Wolverines won the tournament in ’97, and appear to have the best shot of knocking off the Nittany Lions, but the two wouldn’t meet until the championship game.
The Wolverines are led by Abby Crumpton (9 goals, 5 assists, 23 points) and Kacy Beitel (9-3-21) on offense. Carissa Stewart started 18 of 19 games in goal, finishing 12-5-1 with a 1.32 GAA.
Third-seeded Iowa (7-3), Minnesota and Ohio State would have to pull off at least one upset to win it all. The field is rounded out by sixth-seeded Illinois (3-4-2), Michigan State and Iowa (both 3-6-1) — which made the tournament over Indiana because of a tie-breaker.
Still, anything can happen, and the Gophers want to show that’s true.
“It would be kind of nice to be the underdog to come back and beat Penn State,” Holland said. “People know what we can do, we just have to prove it.”
Mark Heller covers soccer and welcomes comments at [email protected]