Team welcomes two elites

Coach Mikki Denney Wright calls the Lions-Buckeyes combo the toughest ever.

Bob Wothe

The good news: Minnesota’s soccer team is on a two-game winning streak and has a chance to win three consecutive matches for the first time since September 2002.

The bad news: They’re facing back-to-back ranked teams for just the fifth time in school history.

After playing 10 of 13 games on the road, the Gophers (5-8-0, 1-6-0 Big Ten) return home to Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium this weekend, taking on No. 16 Ohio State at 7 p.m. tonight and No. 3 Penn State at 1 p.m. Sunday.

“This has got to be the toughest weekend ever for Minnesota soccer,” Gophers coach Mikki Denney Wright said. “Both teams have all-Big Ten candidates, so we’ll have our hands full.”

Not having the services of defenders Nicki Burnie, Tierney Palmer-Klein, Lisa Berg,

Allison Kempainen and Jen Cressman because of injuries will give the Gophers an even more difficult time against a pair of the best attacks in the Big Ten.

But despite missing a whole backfield of defenders, team members said they are optimistic.

“I think we really have a good chance against Ohio State,” said sophomore forward Haley Lentsch, who has scored a team-leading seven points this season. “The game was so close last year, and we’ve improved a lot since then.”

But the Buckeyes (8-2-3, 4-0-3 Big Ten) have certainly improved since their narrow 1-0 overtime victory last season, too. After dropping their first two matches this season, they’re unbeaten in their last 11.

Lara Dickenmann and Lisa Grubb lead the way for the Buckeyes, averaging a combined 9.27 shots and 2.58 points per game.

As good as Ohio State is, though, the Buckeyes don’t match up to Penn State.

The Lions (11-1-1, 7-0-0 Big Ten) are the highest-ranked team Minnesota has faced since 1997 and have won eight straight against the Gophers. Penn State also has the Big Ten’s leading scorer in Tiffany Weimer, who has scored 35 points in 13 matches.

“Both teams have very organized attacks and are really athletic,” Minnesota freshman defender Hailey McCarthy said. “We need to stay tight in the back and play our style of game.”

Last year, the Lions handed the Gophers the worst defeat in school history – an 8-1 road loss. This year, the Gophers have a different result in mind.

“Anyone in the Big Ten can beat anyone in any given game,” McCarthy said. “I know we can compete, and I do think it’s realistic that we could beat both teams.”