Gophers women’s soccer coach Sue Montagne’s first recruiting class may play its last regular season game at the St. Paul Campus Soccer Field on Sunday. And if their opponent won’t be tough to handle, the emotions will.
As the program has grown into national recognition, the core group of seniors — Erin Hussey, Allison Johnson, Teresa O’Hearn, Jennifer Walek and Mikki Denney — and Montagne have grown together.
“I actually have a hard time believing they’re really going to be gone,” Montagne said. “I keep thinking, `Oh, they’ll be back.’ But I guess there’s going to come a point where I’ll realize this is it.”
If Minnesota is successful in receiving a bid to play in the NCAA tournament — a strong possibility, since three Big Ten teams made it last season — they could host another game. Bids and game locations will be announced Nov. 11, the day after the conference tournament.
In the meantime, however, there’s a regular season to wrap up.
Montagne says Sunday’s opponent, Evansville, is a “blue-collar” team that plays a “long-ball” style of soccer, banging it up and down the field rather than retaining the ball.
The Gophers will stick with their quick-passing, possession game to counter the Aces’ free-flowing attack, Montagne said.
With an overall record of 12-4-1, Evansville seems like a team that could pose a big challenge to the No. 14 Gophers. But the Aces compete in the Missouri Valley Conference — hardly a national soccer power — and are nowhere near the top 20.
So Evansville may end up as more of a primer for the Big Ten tournament than a late-season test of the Gophers’ mettle.
But with the behind-the-scenes drama surrounding the seniors’ St. Paul farewell, could Evansville come in and steal a victory?
“Hopefully we’ll go out and still play hard,” Montagne said. “This class is mentally strong and very focused. Every time they walk on the field they expect to win the game, and that’s carried us through for four years. I don’t expect that to change.”
Not every senior will be saying ‘so long’ to Gophers fans: Last season’s Big Ten Player of the Year Jennifer Walek will return in 1997. She was granted an extra year of eligibility after tearing her anterior cruciate ligament in early September.
Following Sunday’s home finale, the Gophers will have a week to formulate a plan to win the Big Ten tournament for the second straight year. Minnesota is seeded third behind Wisconsin and Penn State.
But Montagne said she won’t do much tinkering at all; it’s too late for that.
“I’m not planning on changing anything,” Montagne said. “We’re in a rhythm now where you don’t make changes. Everybody’s playing well and doing their part.”
Minnesota has won six of its last seven games and is on pace to improve upon last season’s 16-5-2 record.
For now, the program is preparing to graduate the first class to play four years at Minnesota. And Montagne won’t just send off a group of players, she’ll say goodbye to friends.
“They’ve really contributed to our success,” Montagne said. “It’s been fun to see them mature as players and people. Now I talk to them more as peers than as student-athletes.”
“I’m sad to see them go, but it’s exciting for them because they’re starting a whole new part of life.”