Gophers in hunt for Big Ten soccer title after lean year

Anthony Maggio

Who would’ve guessed it?

Last year Minnesota’s soccer team finished 10th in the Big Ten, scored nine goals and had the worst overall winning percentage (.294) in the league.

But with conference play on tap this weekend, the Gophers are tied with Michigan for first place in the conference with a 5-1 record and rank seventh in the Great Lakes Region by Soccer Buzz Magazine.

Strangely enough, it would be hard pressed to find a Big Ten coach who’s baffled by all this.

The coaches all agree competition in the conference is more intense top to bottom thanks to talented newcomers and the yearly flow of good fortune. Minnesota appears to be riding a positive wave.

“I’m not surprised at all,” Penn State coach Paula Wilkins said. “Every year different teams do well and different teams don’t. It all depends on what is clicking right for that season.”

Indiana coach Mick Lyon isn’t surprised either. In fact, he expected teams like Minnesota to come around sooner or later.

“I think you’re seeing that the teams in the Big Ten are not going to be down for too long,” Ryan said. “If you have a couple bad years, there are enough quality players out there and good coaches that you can get things re-organized and get good results.”

There is still a long way for the Gophers to go, though.

The Big Ten conference has competition coming out its ears, with Penn State, Michigan, and Purdue all ranked in the top 25.

So far this season, the Lions, Minnesota, the Wolverines, and Illinois have all defeated ranked opponents.

What does this mean?

Parity.

“I think it’s going to be competitive top to bottom,” Boilermakers coach Robert Klatte said. “There’s so much change going on. People can get on a roll. The ability to be consistent and be on a roll will separate the top teams.”

The favorite in the conference at this point is still Penn State.

The Lions (3-1-1) were the Big Ten regular season and tournament champions last year. They are currently ranked 12th in the nation, two spots ahead of Michigan.

“When you go into every game you expect teams to want to knock you off,” Wilkins said. “I think we have a target on the back of our shirts every time we put them on in the Big Ten.”

Penn State is led by senior forward Christie Welsh, the reigning National Soccer Coaches Association of America Player of the Year. She was also named the 2002 women’s Big Ten Conference Athlete of the Year.

But a host of young Big Ten teams look to upend Welsh and the defending champion Lions – spearheaded by a freshman-laden Gophers squad.

Minnesota’s recruiting class this season was ranked 12th best in the Great Lakes Region by Soccer Buzz Magazine, and so far the newcomers have not disappointed.

But most Big Ten teams have freshmen making an immediate impact as well, which is partly responsible for the increasing parity within the conference.

“There are so many more athletes to choose from now,” Minnesota coach Barbara Wickstrand said. “There’s not just an elite bunch where just the best teams get those kinds of recruits. There are so many other athletes that if you can field them you can make a difference in the national rankings.”

The Big Ten season kicks off this weekend as Minnesota travels to the Hoosier state to face Purdue on Friday and Indiana on Sunday.

The latest buzz

Minnesota junior forward Rachael Roth has been named to the Soccer Buzz Magazine Elite Team of the Week, following her performances last weekend versus Iowa State and Cincinnati. Roth scored the game winning goal in both contests.