Big Ten opener has Gophers thinking redemption

After one Big Ten win last year, Minnesota can double that tally this weekend.

Nick Gerhardt

Minnesota will try to end the month of September the way it started: with two victories.

The Gophers (4-3-1 overall, 0-0 Big Ten) begin Big Ten play this weekend at home against Michigan 7 p.m. Friday at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium, and then face Michigan State at 1 p.m.

Minnesota, who has not won a weekend series since Sept. 7-9, will attempt to improve upon a terrible 1-8-1 Big Ten showing last year, and senior Hailey McCarthy feels this weekend can be a good start.

“These are some games that are definitely winnable,” McCarthy said.

The Wolverines lost last weekend to No. 18 Southern California but have a cast of talented offensive players.

“They have a lot of good freshmen,” coach Mikki Denney Wright said.

Michigan (2-4-1 overall, 0-0 Big Ten) has scored only seven goals on the year and freshman forward Amanda Bowery has three of the goals while assisting on two of the others.

The Spartans posses a high-powered offense that has scored 12 goals on the year, led by sophomore forward Lauren Hill’s five goals and two assists and senior midfielder Maureen Pawlak’s four goals and three assists.

Michigan State (5-2-1 overall, 0-0 Big Ten) will test the Gophers’ defense in the areas they have worked on in practice.

“They have a number of dangerous players. They’re good on set pieces, and they are a counterattack-based team,” Denney Wright said.

After concerns about midfield defending against counterattacks Minnesota has temporarily scrapped its three-forward system in favor of five midfielders.

After Minnesota surrendered second-half leads to counterattack-based teams in Dayton and Boston, Denney Wright added another midfielder position and placed senior defender Hailey McCarthy at left midfield to increase the defensive pressure in the midfield area.

McCarthy previously controlled the defense from her center back position and now she will help organize the midfield.

“It’s a matter of staying organized in the midfield. I’d like to have her help us with defensive pressure,” Denney Wright said.

The emphasis on midfield defense has come because Minnesota only plays three defenders, and the trouble comes when a ball sent across the field leaves opponents with open looks on the goal.

“The hardest thing with three in the back is everybody has to shift to the side of the ball and that means the midfielders have to get back on defense,” McCarthy said.

Freshmen Julie Rezac, Kylie Kallman and Jennie Clark will now patrol the back line.

Denney Wright said the increased work on defense comes because Big Ten teams typically take a more defensive approach where many games result in 1-0 finishes.

Since games will be tightly contested set pieces become a more crucial scoring opportunity.

“Our goal is to be the best in the Big Ten on set pieces. It can win or lose a game for a team,” she said.

Junior forward Lindsey Schwartz, Big Ten leader in goals (6), points (15) and shots per game (4), also believes the Gophers will have to convert on more set pieces during conference play.

“We definitely want to be good on set pieces, especially in games like this,” she said. “A lot of set pieces come down to scoring situations and goals.”

Finding a system that works throughout the season will prove the true test for Minnesota, but Denney Wright likes the versatility.

“We just play the formation that we think is going to help us win.”