Inexperience partly to blame for Gophers’ sluggish Big Ten play

by Paul Cordes

The Minnesota soccer team has learned a lot of lessons this season, most of them the hard way.

The Gophers started the season on a 6-1-1 tear, before the start of Big Ten games. But conference play has not been kind to Minnesota. The young Gophers’ struggles include a 5-1 blowout loss to Wisconsin and a 0-5 start to conference play.

Coach Mikki Denney Wright has attributed much of the struggles this season to the youth of the team.

“I think we knew we were going to struggle this year at some point because of our youth,” she said. “It’s not surprising and I think we’re probably the youngest team in the nation.”

While it’s nearly impossible to prove whether they are the youngest team in the nation, it’s easy to see the best teams in the country have a lot of experience.

Portland won the National Championship last year and its 11 players with the most playing time had an average of three years of college experience. This year’s No. 1 team, Notre Dame, has an average of 3.1 years of experience. The Gophers, however, have just 1.8 years’ experience coming from their top 11 players.

Freshman forward Elena Fruci has started all but one of the Gophers games this season. As one of the youngest players on the team, she said one of the biggest frustrations is having to learn a lot of lessons the hard way, rather than being able to learn from the experiences of an upperclassman.

“We kind of have to go through the struggles by ourselves and have that be our growing process,” she said. “It’s painful sometimes, but they’re growing pains and we have to learn them.”

Although a lot of the team doesn’t have much familiarity playing with seniors, junior midfielder Renee de St. Aubin is a different story.

She’s one of the most experienced team members after spending her first two years of college at Iowa State, where she played on a team that had several seniors. She said there are differences in playing on the two types of teams.

“I think seniors definitely help out because they know that it is their last season,” she said. “We all know that we have at least one more year left, but seniors come out and bring something extra because they know that it is their last chance.”

Denney Wright doesn’t have the benefit of working with seniors but said it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Her two most recent recruiting classes have been the best in school history, and when young players come in, the one thing she stresses to them is to be coachable.

“Young players have to be able to take criticism and be willing to learn,” she said. “And among the most coachable players is where you’ll see your leaders start to surface.”

According to de St. Aubin, sometimes having experience comes second to having good leaders.

“I think leadership is sometimes more important than experience,” she said. “And I think we have some players really starting to step up and lead, which is a huge part of growing up.”

That growing up is what Fruci is counting on for the end of the year, as well as for next year. She said she believes that as the season progresses and experienced is gained, the team will be ready for the future.

“I think we’re making a lot of strides this year,” she said. “And next year, we’ll have a lot of sophomores, juniors and even a couple of seniors so hopefully we’ll be a lot better team.”