Minnesota ready for another border battle

Mark Heller

There won’t be 65,000 fans or Paul Bunyan’s Ax in attendance, but the Minnesota soccer team is looking to do some chopping.
The Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry will be alive and kicking at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium tonight. Like the football game two weeks ago, this border battle has plenty at stake.
“We’ve got five or six Minnesota kids on our team, and that adds to it,” Wisconsin coach Dean Duerst said. “It’s not as publicized as football, but between the two programs there is this mutual respect, and it became a very big game. I think it’s a great friends rivalry. We have players from Minnesota on the team that want to go back home, they’ve got a lot of friends coming. It makes for a great atmosphere.”
Wisconsin (7-5-3 overall, 3-5-1 in the Big Ten) is fresh off an upset of then-top-ranked Michigan, just two days after a one-minute span cost the Gophers in a 2-0 loss against the Wolverines.
The Badgers, who are tied for seventh in the conference with Michigan State, are fighting for their playoff lives. The top eight teams will go to the Big Ten tournament, and since Purdue and Northwestern are already eliminated, nine teams are left vying for eight spots.
“It makes things real interesting,” Duerst said. “We’re in one of the best positions, but Minnesota is such a good team. We know we have to come into this game really going for it. We have a lot more at stake than Minnesota right now in this game.
“That can fuel their fire a little bit, knowing that Wisconsin has to come in and get a result.”
The Spartans get lowly Northwestern on Friday. If Michigan State wins and Indiana wins, Wisconsin could be left out, depending on the goal differential.
Confused yet?
For the Gophers, the bottom line is that they are in the tournament. They can finish no better than third and no worse than fifth.
For Minnesota, however, just finishing the regular season isn’t good enough.
“In soccer terms it’s a big game,” Gophers coach Sue Montagne said. “It’s our last home game. Wisconsin is fighting to get into the Big Ten tournament; we’re fighting to get into the NCAA. They beat Michigan, the No. 1 seed; they need to beat us to get into Big Tens and NCAAs. It’s a huge game for both of us.”
Minnesota and Wisconsin have followed similar roads this season: Both teams have had ups and downs, and both teams have had problems scoring. And both teams are fighting for the best possible position come tourney time.
History has not been kind to Minnesota, which has a meager 3-6 all-time record against their rivals. The Badgers walked into St. Paul and stole last year’s meeting 2-0. The Gophers won 4-1 at Madison in ’97.
In four of the past five meetings, the winning team has scored three goals or fewer. Duerst wants this year to follow suit against the potentially high-octane Minnesota offense. Duerst said the key is to play, “very tight, aggressive defense. We know we need to keep the score low.”
Sophomore defender Sarah Fitzgerald knows of no plans to pick on a certain part of Wisconsin’s game, but said the Gophers need to do exactly what the Badgers don’t want them to do.
“Every game plan has been to go out and win the game and play together,” she said. “I wouldn’t say we’re targeting a certain area of their team; we’re going to go out and play our game. I want it to be a low scoring game on their half, but we need to put a lot of goals in.”
This won’t be the 109th meeting between the two teams (like the football teams), only the 10th. But a long history doesn’t always make a big rivalry. And since both teams have a lot riding on this game, the 11th meeting could be just as big as the 110th.
“With our team there is a lot at stake because we’ve had such an up-and-down year that every game is important for us to prove who we are,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re looking at Friday’s game and not the future, even though that’s hard to do.”

Mark Heller covers soccer and welcomes comments at [email protected]