ACC – Clemson
Big XII – Oklahoma | Texas Tech
Big East – Cincinnati | DePaul | Pittsburgh | Providence | Rutgers | Seton Hall | South Florida | St. John’s (NY) | Syracuse | Villanova
Big Ten – Indiana | Nebraska | Purdue
Mid-Majors – Florida Gulf Coast | Illinois State | New Mexico | Rice | Utah State
Pac-12 – Arizona | Arizona State | Colorado | Oregon | Utah | Washington
SEC – Arkansas | Mississippi State | Ole Miss
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco
Given the depth of losses facing Minnesota due to graduation heading into 2011, most saw the season as something of a rebuilding year. Though with some of the success that Minnesota’s experienced over the past half-decade, Golden Gopher supporters were likely crossing their fingers and hoping the club wouldn’t slide too far. 2010 had seen Minnesota struggle to sixth in the league but punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament anyway, one season after a stunning snub from the selection committee in their pursuit for an at-large bid to the Big Dance. The Golden Gophers would make the most of their opportunity in 2010, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen with a convincing win over Texas A&M in the second round. While they’d be stopped by Georgetown, it was still a season of redemption after 2009′s bitter end.
2010 was also a reminder of some of the program’s brightest days, where under the guidance of the program’s first head coach, Sue Patberg (nee Montagne), Minnesota were almost immediately a Big Ten force, doing the double in 1995 and winning the league title again in 1997. The Golden Gophers made it to five straight NCAA Tournaments and won a match in the Big Dance in each year from 1997-1999. But when Patberg left Minneapolis for Georgia after 1999, the Minnesota program she left behind fell into disrepair. The four year reign of Barbara Wickstrand saw the Golden Gophers sink to the bottom of the Big Ten with four losing seasons and zero NCAA Tournament appearances.
For their new head coach, Minnesota looked towards their past and hired a true club legend, the captain of 1995′s double winning team, Mikki Denney Wright. The depth of the task ahead of the former Gopher playing great became known to all soon enough. Minnesota improved slightly with two fifth place finishes in Denney Wright’s first four seasons, but on the whole, the club looked to still be treading water in the competitive Big Ten. Entering into her fifth season at the helm, Denney Wright needed for her side to make a statement and in a big way.
Statements don’t come much bigger than a twenty-two win season, a league title, and a trip to the Sweet Sixteen for the program’s first trip back to the NCAA Tournament since 1999. An encore was always going to be tough, but Minnesota had seemingly done well for themselves with a fourth place finish in the league and a 12-5-3 season, only to be left without a ticket to the Big Dance despite having beaten Wisconsin and Purdue teams that did make the field of sixty-four. Four of the five teams Minnesota lost to finished in the RPI Top 25. In short, the logic used to keep the Golden Gophers out of the NCAA Tournament seemed dubious to say the least.
But after their second Sweet Sixteen appearance in three seasons in 2010 and their third season in a row with at least twelve wins, nobody could doubt that the dog days were truly over in Minneapolis and that Denney Wright was a good bet to be adding more chapters to her lore in the annals of Golden Gopher history in coming seasons. The big question was whether 2011 would be a chapter to remember in that history book with Minnesota very much in the position of having to retool their squad. Early results weren’t very promising, with the club winning just two of six and losing to bubble squads like San Diego State and Georgia in the process.
Worse was yet to come, as the Golden Gophers would be just one of three teams to lose to DePaul in 2011, falling to the Blue Demons in their final non-conference test. They would make a statement with their first Big Ten match though, drawing with Ohio State before beating Michigan to open up league play solidly. They were back in the mire soon after, winning just one of their next five, a string which included a costly defeat to Michigan State and a draw at Wisconsin. Needing a strong finish to ensure themselves of a spot in the postseason, Minnesota used a weak run-in to their advantage, winning three of their final four, including hammering Nebraska, 6-3, on the final day.
It equaled a fifth place finish in the league and a ticket to the Big Ten Tournament. Knowing that only three wins in five days would get them back to the Big Dance, Minnesota started out well, ending Wisconsin’s NCAA Tournament hopes with a 2-0 win before running into Penn State in the semi-finals. They came in with a puncher’s chance, having played the league champs hard in the regular season but couldn’t find the keys to stopping the PSU attack, going down 3-1 in the end. It was the team’s first losing season since 2006, but it was probably a case of taking one step back to take two steps forward given how some of Minnesota’s young talent looked at times last year.
The Gophers would be shocked in late May though by the resignation of Denney Wright, who cited family reasons as the rationale behind stepping away from the job she had performed so wonderfully for so long. To say it put Minnesota into a state of turmoil heading into the Summer might be considered an understatement. While Denney Wright stayed on briefly to help ease the transition process to the new boss, the club didn’t make an appointment until late June.
Tabbed for the position was Army head coach Stefanie Golan, whose star has risen astronomically after three seasons helming the Black Knights. A league title in 2010 and Patriot League Tournament title in 2011 opened many eyes, as did the club’s tenacious defense and great talent base. Golan was linked with many jobs in the offseason, and the Golden Gophers might consider themselves lucky to have reeled in such a rising star so late in the offseason.
Minnesota’s new boss inherits a famously hard working, blue collar squad but also one that ranks among the thinnest in big conferences in sheer numbers, with just twenty players on the roster as of press time. Of course, when one of those twenty is the reigning Big Ten Freshman of The Year, Taylor Uhl, prospects for success increase markedly. Uhl had received a decent amount of hype coming into her rookie season and lived up to it in style, scoring a hat trick in her second career match and then scoring ten goals against league opponents. Given the rapid-fire change in the hot seat and a thin squad still dominated by underclassmen, more may be needed this year to get Minnesota back into the NCAA Tournament picture.
While there figures to be a little uncertainty almost everywhere on the pitch for Minnesota this season, there should be none in between the pipes, where fifth-year senior Cat Parkhill looks set to roam once again. Parkhill was a member of the 2008 U20 World Cup winning team and has since been immovable from the #1 spot in goal for the Golden Gophers. She hasn’t quite hit the levels of stardom that were perhaps once expected of her, but the Apple Valley native has still turned into one of the league’s more reputable keepers and should provide Minnesota with a very steady set of hands in 2012.
The club will be breaking a new backup in after the graduation of Katie Roberts-Carlson, with third stringer Karalyn Leetz leaving the team as well after the season. True freshman Kristen Knutson joins up and should be the backup by default, though one would expect her to be sparsely used, if at all, given Parkhill’s presence.
It remains to be seen how the Golden Gophers will line up under their new coach, as they played primarily in a 3-5-2 system under Denney Wright last season but also occasionally turned out in a 4-5-1 in some Big Ten matches. One thing that should be a boost though is the expected return of just about everyone who saw significant minutes in the rearguard last season. There was shuffling galore as you might expect, with Denney Wright doing some major tinkering in season to a group that leaked goals at times last year.
The one constant was the presence of Lauren Bauer at left-back, which was likely something of a surprise at the beginning of the season considering she had been a) a reserve as a freshman and b) splitting time in midfield and up front as a rookie. Bauer would be the most consistent defender on the club though and even added three assists as well. Classmate MacKenzie Misel also looks set for a starting spot in defense after starting every match and playing in every minute last season. A reserve in a more attacking role as a rookie, Misel turned into a rock both at right-back and center-back for the club and should again be a big part of the club’s defensive efforts this year.
If the club chooses to stay with a 3-5-2, the favorite to take the other defensive starting spot is likely senior Marissa Price, who played at right-back and center-back last season. A spot starter as a rookie, Price has since turned into the club’s longest serving defender, having started every match over the past two seasons. The big question of course is who fills in in the fourth defensive slot should the club switch back to four at the back.
Senior Olivia Bagnall would appear to be the top option, a well vetted and versatile player who saw the majority of her time as a defensive midfielder last season but who also played at center-back when the club went 4-5-1 last year while also serving as a defender as a rookie. Bagnall has four goals and five assists on her career as well, adding another dimension to the club going forward. Other options include sophomore Taylor Wodnick, who started the opener at left-back before playing a role on the wing later in the season, and sophomore Becca Roberts, who played at center-back against Penn State while also playing on the wing at other junctures in the season.
A big wild card could be the return of fifth-year senior Tamara Strahota, who missed all of last season through injury. Strahota made a stunning debut in 2008 with five goals, all of them game winners and has since scored eleven more goals, including six as a junior in 2010. While those numbers might indicate a more likely role further forward in the attack, Strahota alternated between forward and defender in 2010 and could be called upon to help the defense if needed this year. This group didn’t impress at times last year but were also breaking in two new full-time starters and should return everyone this year, meaning the Golden Gophers could take a nice step forward if the group isn’t unsettled by the late coaching change.
This is also a group that could be in flux personnel-wise, as the club not only loses some starters but also could be subject to some tactical shifts after playing last season with five in the midfield. The big loss is that of attacking midfielder Shari Eckstrom, who was one of the club’s most consistent midfielders over the past three seasons and who added some needed offense over the past two. Eckstrom was huge in 2010, with seven goals and five assists and looked like being a key offensively for the club as a senior. She didn’t quite match those numbers last year, with four goals and five assists, but still had a fine season, ending up on the Big Ten All-Tournament Team in the process.
Also gone is Josie Solie, who had been a capable member of the defense leading up to the 2011 season but who was moved further up the pitch into midfield as a senior. The move paid off in the stat sheet, with Solie scoring a career high three goals while also starting every match for the club. Cutting into the team’s depth a bit is the early loss of Brianne Price, a rookie who was limited to just six games off the bench last season.
There are hopes for a bounce back season for junior Steph Brandt who looked like a budding star as a freshman after a stunning seven goal rookie season, including four game winners. Last season was mostly a wash though, with the winger not scoring a single goal and missing most of the final weeks of the season through injury. Senior Allie Phillips operated on the right wing and was another expected to have a big season after four goals in 2010. Despite starting thirteen matches, a career high, she’d only score once, though it’d be the crucial game winner against Northwestern in Evanston.
Sophomore Becca Roberts could be in line for an increased role after an impressive rookie season that saw her named to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team at season’s conclusion. Comfortable operating on the right wing, Roberts scored a pair of goals last season, including a big game winner against Iowa. Versatile sophomore Katie Thyken struggled through an ankle injury for much of the season but began to come on late and could either operate on the wing or more centrally, even taking post in the backline if needed. Classmate Taylor Wodnick is another one of the Minnesota youngsters who shone last season, seeing time out on the wing as a starter while also serving as one of the club’s top reserves.
If the club needs to fortify the midfield defensively, Bagnall certainly fits the bill having played in such a role extensively last season. Bauer could also conceivably be used on the wing in the attack if the club needs a little more offensive oomph, while Strahota certainly seems like a contender to see major minutes in midfield as well. If the club chooses to go with just a single striker up top, Uhl could slot into an attacking midfield role playing off central striker Nicole Baier as well. The Gophers have a ton of options in midfield to choose from, though many of the returnees did not have their best season last year. Much could depend on which system the new coaching staff elects to put into place this year.
Personnel-wise, it’s not real complicated for Minnesota, as their two burly forwards, Taylor Uhl and Nicole Baier both figure to be on the pitch as much as possible this season after combining for forty starts a season ago. Now it’s matter of how the two will line up tactically, with Uhl looking most likely to slip into the midfield should the club go with a sole striker up front. Uhl’s the clear spearhead of the team offensively though after an unbelievably impressive debut season last year, with fifteen goals, including five game winners, and four assists. Included in that total is hat tricks against South Dakota State and Nebraska and goals in four straight to end her rookie season. Uhl ended up being a rather unsurprising selection for Big Ten Freshman of the Year and will be aiming to match and exceed last year’s total and has real potential for fifteen to twenty goals this year.
Baier, a senior, had been a DII All-American at Nebraska-Omaha in 2009 before moving to Minnesota but had been rather limited in her minutes and production in 2010. That changed emphatically last year with Baier starting all but two games and scoring three goals and adding four assists. Baier missed the Big Ten Tournament through injury but still ended the season as a viable second option behind Uhl in the attack. Depth behind the pair is a considerable worry though. Reserve Alex Pafko graduates, while freshman Sheridan Reiners left the club after the season following seventeen appearances off the bench.
This is another unit where Strahota could end up, while the likes of Brandt and Bauer could also be thrown up front in a pinch. More than likely though, the Gophers may depend on some fresh blood once again to help provide depth. They’ll be unlikely to unseat Uhl from the position of the club’s top option though, and if she’s fit and firing, Minnesota’s offense should be quite dangerous again.
Minnesota were looking a crafty pick to rise into upper-mid table in the Big Ten this season behind Parkhill in goal, a more settled backline, and the goals of Uhl…and then Denney Wright departed. As evidenced above, she’s not leaving behind a lack of talent, but there’s still a worrying lack of depth, as has been the case in recent season with the Gophers. Odds are, if they’re on the roster at Minnesota, they’re going to play. That might be a little more problematic this year as opposed to last, because, on paper, this season’s recruiting class is a lot less accomplished coming into the program. From a talent standpoint though, if Minnesota stays healthy, they should be able to qualify for the postseason comfortably. It’s all about how quickly the squad settles under new management though. If it happens quickly, Minnesota might just make a run at an NCAA Tournament berth. If it doesn’t, they might have to battle their way for a spot in the Big Ten Tournament.