Soccer hopes to keep momentum before tourneys

by Mark Heller

Eighteen soccer games are scheduled, practiced for, and trudged through each season. Every year it’s with the idea of getting into the postseason, where a tired and physically ailing team gets to play more games — the conference championship and the NCAAs.
The Minnesota soccer team has two games left before those tournaments, Kentucky on Friday and Alabama on Sunday (at Kentucky).
The Gophers have the fourth seed wrapped up for the Big Ten tournament next weekend, but their NCAA prospects are still unclear.
Motivation, then, is still in the air.
But not just for Minnesota.
“I definitely think (Kentucky) gunning for us,” senior midfielder Amy Koehler said. “We beat them 6-0 last year. I’m sure they’re out to beat us. We have to prove that we can beat Kentucky again this year and we can’t let them take that away from us. These games are still going to put us up there in NCAA ratings, so we need to win both of them.”
It’s not just that the Gophers beat Kentucky 6-0, a blowout like that would incite revenge anyway. It’s that the Gophers did it in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Minnesota.
This meeting doesn’t have those same exact implications, but it won’t be far off. Although the conference season is done, Minnesota still anticipates needing these last two wins to get to the big dance.
“The NCAA really pays attention to the last part of the season and how you’re doing,” said Gophers coach Sue Montagne. “That’s why it’s important to perform well this weekend.”
Last weekend’s 1-0 win against Wisconsin and 4-0 win at Evansville continues Minnesota’s seasonlong trend of inconsistent weekends, and this weekend is the last chance for the Gophers to build some much-desired confidence heading into the Big Tens.
Alabama, on the other hand, offers the Gophers very little help in preparation. Minnesota has never played the Crimson Tide, and knowledge of ‘Bama is not readily available.
The Gophers, however, aren’t fazed by the uncertain.
“We should keep it at the same level,” Koehler said. “We shouldn’t take them any lighter than any other game. We give them the same respect as any other Big Ten teams.”
Playing a team they know zilch about can offer a change from the rest of the teams Minnesota has played this season. Montagne said it can be good against a team like ‘Bama because there are no expectations, and thus, Minnesota can only worry about themselves.
Senior Noelle Papenhausen, however, seems indifferent to whoever they play, whether the Gophers blew a team out in the NCAAs last year, or the first close encounter.
“I don’t think we’re going to adjust,” she said. “The second half of the season we’ve taken the attitude that other teams are going to have to adjust to us, we’re not going to adjust to them. I’m not saying we don’t respect the other teams because we really do. We’re just realizing that’s what works best for us.”
Minnesota already knows what’s on Kentucky’s mind this time around, and only the end result will tell if the Wildcats get this year’s laugh.
“It’s really not us responding to them,” Papenhausen said. “We’re taking the proactive approach instead of the reactive approach. We’re going to go with our own game plan and not worry about what they’re thinking about.”

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