Gophers soccer starts strong in bid for repeat

Aaron Kirscht

On the heels of a Big Ten title and a slew of individual awards, the Gophers women’s soccer team had some high expectations heading into the 1996 season.
And thus far, they haven’t disappointed. The team is 6-2 and ranked 10th in the nation. Their two losses came at the feet of No. 5 Portland (3-2) and Sunday at Penn State (3-2 in overtime).
As the old saying goes, to the victors come the spoils. But the Gophers have had their share of the toils, as well, losing two players — sophomore Noelle Papenhausen and Big Ten Player of the Year senior Jennifer Walek — both to torn anterior cruciate ligaments. Sophomore Jaime O’Gara is also out with a stress fracture, but is expected to return in late October.
Bad luck aside, the team has managed to play well, going 3-2 on the road and remaining undefeated at the St. Paul Campus Soccer Field. The Gophers have extended their home unbeaten streak to 16 games.
Minnesota came out angry in its season opener, traveling to Valparaiso and delivering a 10-0 whipping to the Crusaders on Aug. 31.
Senior forward Erin Hussey scored four times and notched two assists, setting single-game team records for goals scored and total points (10).
But Hussey was only one of six players to score. Junior midfielder Jennifer McElmury had two goals; freshman forward Sarah Connors, sophomore forward Corrine Bolder, freshmen Amy Koehler and Nicole Lee each had a goal apiece.
But Minnesota didn’t dominate on the offensive end alone; Valparaiso managed only two shots on goal to the Gophers’ 25.
With only a day of rest after a blowout victory, the team may have been due for a letdown heading into Indianapolis to face Butler University Sept 2. But that never happened, as the Gophers won 3-1.
Walek’s first half goal was one of the early highlights of the season. Minutes into the game, Walek drove down the field, splitting the Butler defense. As Montagne saw it, “There was no question the ball was going in the net.” Walek drilled the ball in the back of the net to put the Gophers up for good at 1-0.
Walek and Lee both scored once, and Hussey — who scored again to push her total to five — was named Big Ten Player of the Week for her two-game, 12-point performance.
Hussey credits much of her success to playing the same position — forward — consistently, giving her a chance to “get in the mode” of the game easier. As for the scoring spurt, which has her more than halfway to her career high of eight from last season, Hussey shrugs it off. “I’m just doing what I can,” she said.
The team had to wait until the third game of the season to play at home, opening against Auburn on Sept. 7 in St. Paul.
Minnesota won 2-0 on goals by Walek and Lee, outshooting the Tigers 15-5. The second-half insurance goal was Lee’s second of the season, Walek’s goal was her third in as many games, but would also be her last.
In the first half of the Sept. 8 game with New Mexico, Walek was called offsides and, as she turned to check her position on the field, caught her cleats in the turf and tore the ACL in her left leg.
Minnesota was able to rebound from the injury and score the game’s lone goal. Early in the first half, McElmury put the team ahead by burying a pass from freshman Megan Johnson. The goal was McElmury’s third of the season, and gave the Gophers their fourth straight win.
Still, the Walek injury could hurt the team in the long run. “Sometimes you have to pay your dues,” McElmury said. “But the team is learning that we have to move on, and that we can win without key players.”
After a week of practice, the team traveled to Portland, Ore., for games against Portland and No. 19 Washington on Sept. 14 and 15.
McElmury continued where she left off, scoring twice against Portland. Coach Montagne called McElmury’s free kick goal in the first half “the best I’ve ever seen her take … no goalie could have reached that ball.” Her effort wasn’t enough, however, as Portland — last year’s NCAA runner-up — held on for a tough 3-2 victory.
Against Washington on Sept. 15, the Gophers’ luck was a bit better. After falling behind 1-0 in the opening minutes, Minnesota battled back with goals in the second half from McElmury and Lee.
The win gave them a split in the weekend road trip and pushed their record to 5-1 on the season. Lee continued her strong play in Walek’s absence, and along with McElmury and Hussey, the Gophers can boast a consistently formidable offensive lineup.
Wisconsin–Milwaukee didn’t appear likely to pose many problems for the Gophers when they came into town for the Sept. 20 game in St. Paul.
Still, the Panthers played with a ferocity worthy of their nickname. It took a perfectly placed corner kick from Hussey to McElmury, who drilled the ball into the left corner of the goal, to beat them 1-0.
Even with the impressive 6-2 record, Montagne and her players see a lot of room for improvement. And chemistry, it seems, is the biggest problem. “We’re playing in spurts,” Montagne said. “We need more people to pick up the slack and play up to their potential.”
Still, the best teams are still able to win when they’re not at their best. The Gophers are hoping they can sustain the trend.