Surprising Gophers to face huge home test against Illinois

After running off three straight conference wins, the docket gets tougher Sunday.

After surprising the rest of the Big Ten with two road wins last weekend, Minnesota’s soccer team has an opportunity to make an even bigger statement this weekend.

The Gophers (6-4-2, 3-1-0 Big Ten) will take on Iowa (1-6-4, 0-1-2) at 7 p.m. today and Illinois on at 1 p.m. Sunday. Both games will be played at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium in St. Paul.

Undefeated in the conference, the Illini are receiving votes but remain unranked in the NSCAA/adidas national poll.

Illinois (7-2-2, 3-0-0) is first in the Big Ten in goals per game and boasts two of the top six point scorers in the conference in forwards Jessica Bayne and Eva Strickland.

They might be the best team the Gophers will have faced so far this year.

“They’re very good,” Minnesota coach Mikki Denney Wright said. “They’re definitely a contender for the Big Ten championship, no question Ö We know they’re a very, very good team.”

Minnesota suffered its worst loss last season at the hands of the Illini, who beat the Gophers 4-0 in Champaign, Ill.

Minnesota players said they appreciate having a chance to show the Illini that the 2005 Minnesota squad is much-improved.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to prove that last year – I wouldn’t say it was a fluke – but we’re a better team than that,” senior Kaitlin Neary said. “It’s an opportunity to show that we can compete with them.”

But before the Illinois game, the Gophers have to worry about getting past Iowa.

The worst team in the Big Ten in 2004, the Hawkeyes are much-improved this season.

Denney Wright said she is making sure her team does not look past them.

After going 0-9-1 in conference play last season, Iowa has already tied both Wisconsin and Northwestern this year.

“Honestly, every team in the Big Ten is going to be a tough game no matter where it says a team’s ranked,” senior goalkeeper Molly Schneider said. “I’m looking into it as how we go into every single weekend – it’ll be who outworks them.”