Soccer opens NCAA tourney vs. Kentucky

Jim Schortemeyer

Break out the scratchy recording of the Minnesota Rouser and haul in the porta-potties — the Minnesota women’s soccer team is back in town.
The Gophers have been on the road for the better part of a month, but will play Kentucky at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the St. Paul soccer field in the opening game of the NCAA Tournament.
Minnesota coach Sue Montagne has mixed feelings about the return trip home.
“It’s really nice to not have to travel and have the home field advantage,” Montagne said. “But I think the weather could be a problem for us.”
Montagne referred to the rain-sleet-snow mixture that spread across Minnesota on Tuesday, which could leave the field wet for today’s game. Kentucky coach Warren Lipka said his team will be okay, thanks in part to the unusually chilly weather at last week’s SEC Championships in Alabama.
If the wet weather continues, it could be a big factor in the level of play. A wet soccer ball can often slide over feet and through fingers, making for a sloppy-looking game.
But the Gophers have been far from sloppy recently. Although the Gophers tied Indiana Friday, coaches and players from both teams agreed that Minnesota dominated the game. Players said they haven’t played a bad game since a 1-0 loss to Ohio State on October 11th.
Senior Kelly Shea is still recovering from surgery on her shins, and practiced last night for the first time since last Thursday.
“I’m going to practice tonight and try and jump,” Shea said. “Last week the Penn State doctor didn’t clear me to play so we’ll see what happens.”
A decision on Shea’s status could come as late as Wednesday morning. Shea had been a regular at midfield before the injury. But the loss of Shea clearly hasn’t been a great hindrance to the Gophers, who’ve continued to play well.
Minnesota and Kentucky are teams on different paths of late. The Gophers were on a hot streak going into last Friday’s game with Indiana. Although the Hoosiers won a shootout, the game counted as a tie, and kept Minnesota’s unbeaten streak alive at seven games.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats are 1-3-1 in their past five games. Lipka claims that streak is misleading.
“You have to put it in perspective,” Lipka said. “We lost to Florida, but they’re the number two seed in the tournament. The level of play has been tough.”
That said, Kentucky has not beaten any of the teams currently in the top 25.
The Gophers have beaten one team on that list — No. 18 Michigan, to whom the Wildcats lost 1-0 last month.
Both Kentucky and Minnesota come from conferences sending record numbers of teams to the tournament. Both the SEC and Big Ten are sending six representatives, thanks to the tournament’s expansion from 32 to 48 teams.
Minnesota should have an edge in team confidence. Montagne was pleased — but not surprised — to see the Gophers make the tournament, while the Wildcats’ Lipka was thankful for an invitation.
“You can look at your record and always second-guess things,” Lipka said. “We were very surprised and very happy to make it.”
The Wildcats are saddled with a streaky offense. Kentucky has scored three goals or more five times this season, but it’s also been on the short end of five shutouts.
In the end it might not matter who wins. An engagement with sixth-seeded Portland (16-2-2) lies ahead for the winner of Wednesday’s game.