Gophers bow out of Big Ten with semi-final loss

Mark Heller

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. —Minnesota senior forward Megan Johnson staggered into the postgame interview room with a giant ice pack strapped to her leg.
No tears were shed during Saturday’s interviews. Instead they were replaced with facial expressions of disappointment, physical pain and muddled tones.
What transpired in the previous 90 minutes against top-seeded Penn State was all reflected by Johnson right then and there: a good ol’ fashioned postseason soccer game.
And a 2-1 loss.
The score is always the bottom line, certainly in the single-elimination Big Ten tournament, but the game itself was far closer than even the one-goal score indicates.
“We’ve been kind of building steam this season,” a soft-spoken Gophers coach Sue Montagne said. “We started off shaky for awhile and now we understand what it takes to win this kind of game and we laid it on the line today. I’m extremely proud of our team. We didn’t play scared, we left it all out on the field and worked as hard as we possibly could have. Everyone gave 100-plus percent effort.
“They didn’t play any harder than us, that’s just the way it goes sometimes. Penn State knows we can play and that’s the biggest thing: Penn State knows we can play soccer.”
In a soccer tournament filled with unlikely events and strange currencies, Saturday’s late game could put up a fight for being the best of the best.
Both teams had scoring chances that yielded everything but goals; saves by goalkeepers and the most critical one by a Penn State player at their own goal line kept the score tied at two. Penn State — a big, physical team who Montagne said, “ran us over” earlier in the season — was run with and sometimes over by the smaller Gophers.
Minnesota fans in the stands were doing cheers, constantly screaming encouragement at players and their distaste at numerous officiating calls.
Yet all that was left was the “2” and “1” on the scoreboard.
“I thought it was really similar to the past times we played Minnesota, except earlier this year,” Lions coach Pat Farmer. “I have great respect for them. I think it’s the hardest program we’ve dealt with. They played really well and deserved to win.”
There is an old expression that “he who hesitates is lost.” Sophomore defender Sarah Fitzgerald hesitated on whether to go after Courtney Lawson or sit back. By the time Fitzgerald made the decision one second later, Lawson beat Dana Larson for a 1-0 lead.
Johnson scored on a long pass from Erin Holland to tie the game with 29 minutes left in the first half. Sixteen minutes later, Penn State’s Christie Walsh scored off a throw-in for a 2-1 lead.
The lead was preserved with 22 minutes left in the game. Johnson’s corner kick was headed at the seemingly empty net, but a Lions defender was in the right place at the right time. Standing on the goal line, she headed Wagner’s header back out.
Johnson had a breakaway with eight minutes left, racing with Lions goalie Emily Olesiuk. They both arrived to the ball at the exact same time and collided — the ball never made it on net.
The previous time Minnesota played Penn State, they were coming off what Montagne called an “embarrassing loss” to Ohio State. On Friday the Gophers had their chance to set the record straight, and they did in a 2-0 opening-day win.
Once again it was Johnson getting the Gophers on the board with a rebound shot into a wide-open right side of the net.
Senior Nicole Lee added an insurance goal less than three minutes into the second half.
After that, Larson and the defense took care of the rest by playing the possession game.
“We knew they were going to come at us strong because they hate us and we hate them,” Larson said. “We were ready for them. We played a little more defensive in the second half and it worked.”
An NCAA birth against Eastern Michigan on Wednesday gives Minnesota a chance to use Saturday’s all-out war as a positive of sorts. But on Saturday, one of their best games (if not the best game) of the season has the Gophers holding nothing but ice.
“Our effort was there, luck has a lot to do with it,” a dejected Johnson said afterward. “Sometimes it’s on, sometimes it’s off. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be, I don’t know.”
Mark Heller covers soccer and welcomes comments at [email protected]