Stuck in the middle, Neary burgeons

Junior Kaitlin Neary has five points in five games, in her first year as a midfielder.

Bob Wothe

If finding answers at midfield was supposed to be the biggest test for Minnesota’s soccer team, junior Kaitlin Neary must have gotten her hands on a cheat sheet.

Less than a year removed from a bike accident that resulted in a broken collarbone and more than 100 stitches in her right leg, the forward-turned-midfielder has led the Gophers to a 3-2 start, scoring five points in as many games.

Though she has started the season strong, it has been a long year for Neary, who not only suffered through the accident last September but also had a skiing mishap in winter. Then, to top it all off, first-year head coach Mikki Denney Wright came in and changed Neary’s position.

“I absolutely hated it at first,” Neary said. “I didn’t know what to do – I was lost out there.”

But with time, practice and tutelage under Denny Wright, Neary slowly figured it out. For a team whose coach was most concerned with its midfield play, Neary has been a pleasant surprise.

Recruited as a freshman forward out of Tacoma, Wash., Neary started 18 of 19 games as a freshman in 2002, tallying one assist.

In last year’s injury-riddled campaign, she ranked fifth on the team in scoring with six points despite appearing in only 10 games and making five starts. But, just like this year, she scored five of those points in her first five games – all before the accident.

A player with unquestionable offensive gifts, Neary has

garnered the respect of both her teammates and coaches, with a positive attitude and willingness to do what’s best for the team.

“She’s got great leadership skills and is very vocal on and off the field,” Haley Lentsch, last year’s leading goal scorer, said. “She has great vision and creates a lot of the offensive opportunities for us.”

Since the switch to midfielder, Neary said, she has embraced her role as the “quarterback” of the team.

“I want to be as much of a leader as I can,” Neary said. “We have lots of leaders, but I want to really stand out.”

She certainly did so last weekend at the Soccer Etc. Nike Classic in Boise, Idaho. Neary led the Gophers to a 3-0 victory over Boise State with a goal and an assist – her best game of the young season.

“Last weekend was the absolute best I have ever seen Kaitlin play,” Denney Wright said. “I actually see her more naturally at midfield because she’s just such a great playmaker and creative attacker.”

The switch to midfield hasn’t been without its problems, though. Neary struggled in a 3-0 loss to Central Florida on Sept. 5. She was unable to keep possession and control the ball long enough to get an attack going.

But that was an aberration.

“She has really matured so much even from the spring,” Denney Wright said. “She’s great at self-evaluating herself and was always in our office watching tape this summer.”

It’s this kind of attitude that has put Neary in a leadership role. And as it turns out, she’s an optimistic leader.

“This team just has a ton of potential,” Neary said. “We’ve worked really hard all year, and I’m confident that we can reach any goals that we set for ourselves.”