U soccer loses in the first round

by Aaron Kirscht

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Gophers women’s soccer coach Sue Montagne fixed her eyes on the scoreboard, almost as if she was trying to ingrain the image in her mind. Her team had just lost 2-1 to Northwestern in Friday’s first round of the Big Ten tournament.
Moments later she would approach Wildcats coach Marcia McDermott at midfield to offer her congratulations. As she returned to the Gophers’ bench to face a slew of teary-eyed players, Montagne glanced at the scoreboard again — and winced.
It was a telling moment. This loss hurt, and it hurt bad. The Gophers hopes for repeating as Big Ten champions were dashed, and their chances of receiving a bid to the NCAA tournament are now painfully slim.
“We’re just going to hold our breath and hope for the best,” Montagne said, over the jubilant screams of nearby Northwestern players. “Maybe somebody will be smiling on us and give us a bid, but I can’t really say.”
Erin Hussey, meanwhile, seemed confident that she and her fellow seniors had played their last game as Gophers.
“I think that this pretty much ended our season,” Hussey said. “After the loss (to Evansville) last week and the loss today, we’re going to drop way down in our region. I don’t have a lot of hope right now.”
Women’s athletics director Chris Voelz echoed Hussey’s concerns. She mentioned that a member of the NCAA selection committee attended the game and watched the Gophers lose their second straight game to an unranked opponent.
Although Minnesota had a strong schedule and played higher-ranked opponents close, Voelz said, they had yet to play their way into the NCAA tournament.
“(The NCAA was) looking for us to win this game,” Voelz said. “But when you have a bad loss to someone ranked below you, and if you do it in the last third of the season, they don’t ask why.
“That makes (a Gophers bid) a long shot. A win over Northwestern would have made it different.”
The Wildcats obviously didn’t comply with the Gophers’ master plan. Instead, they dominated the action from the opening whistle, containing the Gophers offense throughout much of the first half. In fact, Northwestern held Minnesota without a shot on goal for the first 22 minutes of the game.
The Gophers pieced together a quick string of shots from Hussey, Corinne Bolder, Jennifer McElmury and Colleen Tierney with 15 minutes to go in the half, but that was the height of their offensive attack.
“(Northwestern) really came at us hard at the beginning of the game,” Montagne said. “They were double-teaming, they were diving for the ball, they were all over the place. I give them a lot of credit.”
Minnesota was able to turn things around early in the second half. McElmury headed in a Hussey corner kick in the 51st minute, and for a while it looked like the Gophers were beginning to click. But the advantage was short-lived — only nine minutes, to be exact.
Defender Allison Johnson appeared to make a head save on Northwestern’s first goal, but the linesman said she was across the goal line. Cathleen Cooke’s controversial score tied the game and shifted the momentum back to the Wildcats’ favor.
“Referees call those things, and I guess we just have to believe that it went [in the net],” Montagne said.
Things got worse four minutes later when Stephanie Erickson — Northwestern’s leading scorer with 13 regular-season goals — got the game-winner on a scramble in front of the net. Erickson looped the ball over sprawling goalkeeper Dana Larson, who had whiffed on a sliding save attempt outside the six-yard box.
“Their second goal really knocked the wind out of us,” Montagne said. “We tried to battle back hard, but it didn’t go our way.”
The Gophers’ second-half rally, which included pulling Larson for Teresa O’Hearn and playing O’Hearn up around midfield, would fall short.
Minnesota’s best opportunity for a tie came with nine minutes to play, when Hussey had a shot at a near-open net but skipped the ball wide.
And just like that, the 1996 season appeared finished for the Gophers.
Heading into the weekend, Montagne said, “I was worried about our injuries, but optimistic that things would work out all right.”
Yet as they had all season, injuries played a role in Friday’s game. Nicole Lee was sidelined with a deep shin bruise midway through the first half, and Kelly Shea’s shoulder popped out minutes later. Lee would return, Shea would not.
“We’ve done a heck of a job to play through (all the injuries),” Montagne said. “It’s just unfortunate the way the season’s gone.”
Minnesota wasn’t the only high seed to bow out on the tournament’s first day: Penn State, the No. 2 seed, lost to No. 7 Indiana on the adjoining field. Montagne said that didn’t affect the Gophers performance, but that perhaps it should have.
“At halftime, I was telling them the lower seeds were upsetting the higher seeds,” Montagne said. “(Northwestern) had nothing to lose and they played that way. We had everything to lose, and we just didn’t get it done.”

Northwestern 0 2 — 2
Gophers 0 1 — 1

First Half:
No scoring.
Second Half:
Min — McElmury 9 (Hussey), 51:00. NU — Cooke (Westrich), 60:00.
NU — Erickson 14 (Unassisted) 64:22.