Tough road weekend on tap for Gophers

Austin Cumblad

It might not decide the season, but this isnâÄôt just another weekend for the Minnesota womenâÄôs soccer team. The 15th-ranked Gophers hit the road to face Penn State on Friday and No. 24 Ohio State on Sunday, the third place and first place teams in the Big Ten, respectively. The Nittany Lions, after struggling through their non-conference schedule, are 3-1-0 in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes are 4-0-0. Though Minnesota is the highest-ranked team in the conference, Ohio State is perhaps the hottest. The Buckeyes are on a five-game win streak and are responsible for Penn StateâÄôs lone Big Ten loss. The Nittany Lions, however, can never be overlooked âÄî theyâÄôve won 13 straight regular season conference titles. The implication of a pair of wins? âÄúI think that would âĦ get us into the NCAA tournament,âÄù sophomore goalkeeper Cat Parkhill said. For the Gophers, things are back to normal on the field for the first time since August. Senior Jennie Clark returned from a collarbone injury Sunday to anchor a Minnesota back line that allowed just a consolation goal late in a 4-1 win over Purdue. ClarkâÄôs return allowed junior Tamara Strahota, who assumed center back duties in the captainâÄôs absence, to return to her natural forward position. Strahota thrived in the back as a one-on-one defender, but the defense looked more cohesive with Clark back on the field. âÄúTam did a great job, but thereâÄôs just a level of comfort with Jennie back there because itâÄôs been like that for some years,âÄù assistant coach Krystle Kallman said. The defense needed to be comfortable. The Boilermakers looked the better team in the first half, counterattacking with pace and stretching the defense. But the Gophers stayed composed, and Parkhill came up with four important saves. Then in the second, Minnesota pulled away with two goals 33 seconds apart and a couple late tallies for a surprisingly uncomfortable 4-1 win. Against teams like Penn State and Ohio State, the Gophers canâÄôt afford a quiet first 45 minutes. âÄúWe need to put together 90,âÄù junior midfiedler Shari Eckstrom, who scored the game-winner Sunday and leads Minnesota with six goals, said. âÄúAs we keep playing better teams, theyâÄôre going to put us away early. We need to come out with a better mentality because the level of play is so different in the second half that if we can do that all 90 minutes, I donâÄôt feel like any team will be able to play with us.âÄù