Gophers, St. Paul ready for NCAAs

The first step to accomplishing any lofty NCAA goals the Minnesota soccer team might have this season will be getting two wins in the first and second rounds of the tournament this weekend. The ability to play at home may give the team the advantage it needs. The Gophers will host the Marquette Golden Eagles at 6 p.m. Friday. The winner will advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament at 1 p.m., Sunday to take on the winner of FridayâÄôs 3 p.m. matchup between Colorado and South Dakota State. After earning the bid to host this round of the tournament, all games will be held at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium in St. Paul. The Golden Eagles will bring a wide depth of talent to the field Friday. Fifteen of MarquetteâÄôs 26 players, not including the teamâÄôs two goaltenders Natalie Kulla and Chelsey Turner, have had at least a goal or an assist this year. Marquette suffered losses this year to No. 1 overall seed Notre Dame and American division leader West Virginia, but wins against Connecticut and St. JohnâÄôs helped the team end the regular season second in the American division of the competitive Big East conference. This is the teamâÄôs third NCAA appearance in the past five years. Gophers head coach Mikki Denney Wright said as of right now Marquette is the team to beat this weekend. âÄúThereâÄôs not a game I could look back on this year that they havenâÄôt brought it, that they havenâÄôt played with great intensity and great passion,âÄù she said. âÄúWeâÄôre not looking anywhere but just straight at Marquette.âÄù Finishing, defensive shape and possession will be among the teamâÄôs focuses for the weekend, Denney Wright said. Though the Gophers have totaled an impressive 445 shots this season, less than half those shots have been on goal. âÄúOur goal is to score early and often, so hopefully we can do that,âÄù senior forward Lindsey Schwartz said. Schwartz said the team hasnâÄôt been consistently finishing on breakaways, and getting the âÄúeasy goalsâÄù this weekend will play an important role. âÄúWe just have to concentrate on Friday,âÄù sophomore forward Katie Bethke said. âÄúSometimes in the heat of the moment we tend to stray away from that, but when we play Minnesota soccer, we just click.âÄù An appearance in the NCAA tournament is a goal the team has been working toward all year, Schwartz said. Senior midfielder Kaitlin Wagner said the teamâÄôs seniors have the sense that this year is their last chance, and that feeling is motivating them toward a victory. âÄúWe finally are here, and I think the team is in a good place,âÄù she said. âÄúWe all are ready to just play soccer.âÄù Wagner seemed to have no reservations about the teamâÄôs ability to perform this weekend and in the next rounds of the tournament. âÄúWeâÄôre going to take it one game at a time, but still keeping our eye on our last game on Dec. 7,âÄù she said.