The Gophers' 2018 season was a bit of a roller coaster. Huge moral victories like taking Stanford to overtime and getting Captain Emily Peterson back just five and a half months after her ACL tear were surrounded by tough losses to Indiana and Wisconsin that nearly kept Minnesota from qualifying for the conference tournament. But Head Coach Stefanie Golan and the Gophers found a little magic and hit their stride at exactly the right moment and took home the Big Ten Conference Championship on their way to an opening round NCAA Tournament win against Auburn.
With a little bit of time to digest the ups and downs of such a dramatic season, let's take a look back at key takeaways from this year's Gopher Soccer squad. (If you've already had enough reading, you can watch our lengthy chat with Coach Golan below or listen to it as a podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Stitcher)
How things went overall
For all the ups and downs this year's Gopher Soccer team had in terms of form and performance, there were really only two truly bad results: the tie at Michigan State and the loss to Indiana. There were plenty of other stretches where the team didn't quite play to it's potential and other times still where they weren't particularly fun to watch, but they found a way to piece together results as new players and coaches gained their footing.
It's easy to forget while you watch the team play - in part because you are literally looking over them - but essentially the entire assistant coaching staff turned over not long before the season started. SJ, the teams Director of Operations, is still running things behind the scenes. But Molly Rouse and Becky Fletcher had to settle into their roles and Alli Lipsher had to take on the task of a wide open goalkeeper competition. That coaching turnover combined with increased roles on the field for four true freshman and several others meant the ebbs and flows of the season tended to vary widely.
Who stepped up
In general, the rotation looks about how it usually does. 16 players got meaningful minutes throughout the season. April Bockin, Molly Fiedler, and Patricia Ward were named to the First, Third, and Freshman All Big Ten teams respectively. We would argue that Athena Kuehn, Nikki Albrecht, and Emily Heslin probably did enough shoring up the defense and Megan Gray did enough as a steady attacking presence to warrant recognition as well. Let's call them the four of them the Equal Time All Stars until someone tweets a better suggestion at us. Coach Golan already did an extended and in-depth chat with us specifically on the award winners (both Big Ten and Equal Time All Stars) that you can listen to on Facebook or iTunes. Now let's take a moment to give some others a bit of credit.
McKenna has great straight line speed, good strength on the ball, and a nice left foot for a cross or a shot on frame. Because she's still a bit raw with her dribble and first touch, she hasn't seen time in the middle of the field. But with her size and strength, she could end up being a super dangerous target forward. Getting so many minutes as a true freshman was a big boost. You could see her hit a bit of a freshman wall when the Gophers hit Big Ten play but she worked her way through it and had a few really solid games in the conference and NCAA Tournament. Another offseason of working on her agility and footwork could make Buisman into a seriously dangerous threat in just her sophomore season. Here's to hoping we get to watch her in WPSL again this summer.
Nummerdor said in an interview earlier this season that she really prefers to play in the midfield, but she clearly has a knack for drifting a bit higher up field. Her strengths and weaknesses are essentially a mirror image to Buisman's. She has great touch. She can operate in tight spaces. And you can tell she belongs in the center of the pitch. Though she's not as physically bruising as others on the team, she's shown enough grit to be able to keep a defender on her back and make a turn toward goal. Like Buisman, she had some of her strongest showings late in the year and we think she may have a future as a bit of a hybrid 9/10 - someone who drifts back to the midfield to receive the pass when need-be but drifts toward the top of the box to let wingers run into space.
Windingstad was one of several Gophers tasked with replacing an outstanding graduating senior. In her case: Maddie Gaffney. Through some bumps and bruises, she showed she was up to the task of being a Big Ten outside back. She's quick and athletic. And, though we sometimes thought she seemed almost too thoughtful and patient with her passing, the coaching staff was quick to remind us that her pass completion percentage was near the top of the team. If she can continue to grow her game in the offseason and return as a back line starter (alongside Nikki Albrecht and Athena Kuehn), it would be a real luxury for Coach Golan to only have to find one more starter. So, take your time 'Ris. What do we know!
How things look for next season
There were so many players who stepped into increased roles in the rotation this season. And yet, even with five seniors leaving the team and opening up major minutes, the returning Gophers better be ready to battle for minutes in 2019. The incoming class for next fall has TEN players in it already, and that doesn't include possible transfers (there's at least one serious power five starter as a possibility...). Of the returners, there are probably a handful we'd put in "sure thing" or "close to sure thing" starter category for next season.
Athena Kuehn and Nikki Albrecht are absolute beasts on the back line. Patricia Ward and Megan Gray both showed enough that, if they keep improving, they have a shot to lock in starting spots. Windingstad will come in with a good shot to keep that right back spot. We also generally like what we saw early on from Delaney Stekr on the backline and from Maddie Nielsen as a first time starting keeper. But Stekr lost minutes to Catherine Billings late in the season and there are two freshman keepers coming in ready to compete and Nielsen's save percentage of .748 put her toward the bottom of the Big Ten. Still, Nielsen's improvement throughout the season and strong finish through the conference tournament definitely give her a leg up.
In the front six, plenty of players like Langdok, Buisman, Nummerdor, Del Moral, and McKendrick will all battle for time but none could be said to have a spot guaranteed. Failing to crack the starting lineup as a midfielder or forward doesn't exactly mean you don't play. At least four or five subs should get consistent minutes and they're essentially all in the front six of that 4-3-3.
Gophers going pro
Over the off-season, we'll try to cover other stories from DII, DIII, and the WPSL. But we're also going to take on something a bit more ambitious. There are a few Gopher seniors who are planning to pursue a professional soccer career and we'll be following them every step of the way. Keep an eye out for future coverage, specifically by 'Liking' our Facebook page (where we may or may not be planning a video mini-series about the transition from college to pros...)
We caught up with Rachael Norton from Bemidji State University to talk about the Beavers historic season, her record-setting career, and playing up north.
(Her chat is also available a podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Stitcher)
In this episode, we talk to WPSL President Sean Jones about the first ever International Combine this summer, what pro leagues could benefit from signing WPSL players, and the growth of the league overall.
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