Each year, the Big Ten coaches are polled in the preseason on who is favored to win the conference championship. Even after their success last year, the Gophers landed in fifth (with season co-champions Northwestern and Rutgers placing at second and third, respectively). This same poll placed last year’s team at sixth and they went on to take it all, so it might not be wise to sell this team short.
Take the two preseason exhibition games. The Gophers demonstrated a coordinated defense, a hungry attack, and strong and fit players. What are some considerations for this year’s outlook?
Unlike professional teams, college player rosters are stable and change predictably. Six players — four of them starters — have left the team since last season. Four graduated early in December, with three of them now playing professionally overseas. One of them was Tarah Hobbs, the starting goalkeeper for the previous four seasons, who leaves with the program record for shutouts.
Hobbs left big gloves to fill. The question is if junior Kailee Sharp — who did not appear in any games in 2015 or 2016 — or freshman Maddie Nielsen will take over between the poles. Though Nielsen was a three-sport athlete in high school and an imposing figure at six-foot-one, it was Sharp who played both preseason games. It will be important to keep both of them fit and healthy as there is not a third keeper on the roster should either of them become injured.
Other senior departures were spread throughout the outfield, creating openings for others to make their mark. Here are a few players to keep your eye on:
April Bockin, junior, forward
Had Bockin’s 2016 season not been cut short due to injury, she certainly would have received more honors. She is a force to be reckoned with on the field. She has started 2017 strong, tallying both a goal and an assist in the preseason.
Nikki Albrecht, sophomore, defense
Albrechet had a superlative freshman season as part of the stingy 2016 Gophers defense. She started every game and was fourth in total minutes played. She is an energetic player.
Celina Nummerdor, freshman, midfield/forward
Nummerdor’s substitute performance in the Creighton exhibition earned her a starting spot against Kansas State. If she can keep that spot, she could be one of the breakout players this year.
The 2016 captains, Simone Kolander and Josee Stiever, were two of the departing seniors. This created an opportunity for two players to take on leadership roles. Kolander and Stiever had a strong connection both on and off the field. Not only are they cousins, but they were roommates. On the field, Stiever would regularly move the ball from the midfield and feed it to Kolander to finish.
This year’s co-captain duo of senior defender Tori Burnett and junior midfielder Emily Heslin is situated further back. They will literally bring a different perspective to the role than their predecessors. In the team announcement naming the pair, their being vocal and their problem-solving abilities were cited as reasons they were selected. These two could also experience a confidence boost that being named captain can often bring. All eyes will be on them as they grow into this leadership position.
In past seasons, the Gophers only had one exhibition game prior to the start of the season. Having two this year allows head coach Stefanie Golan more opportunity to see how the new team will come together.
The regular season starts with seven non-conference games with D1 teams from across the county, including two tournaments. The Iowa Tournament, hosted by Iowa State at the end of August, will also feature a match against Notre Dame. The Gophers will host UC Santa Barbara and Providence in the Minnesota Classic, during the first week of September.
Based on last year’s team performances, fans can expect the Gophers to do rather well in non-conference play, with their strongest opponents facing them in the Iowa Tournament.
The Gophers will get more than a week of rest after their last non-conference match against Utah State. They’ll kick off conference play away at Wisconsin for the annual border battle. Unfortunately, the Gophers face some of their toughest conference competition, Northwestern and Rutgers, away. The regular season wraps up away at Nebraska, denying Minnesota the opportunity of a celebration at home should it take the championship again.
While Minnesota needs to adjust with departing key players and added new talent, so does its opponents. The Gophers have shown a strong team in the preseason and the schedule of non-conference play appears to be in their favor. They could definitely make a run at the Big Ten championship this year. If not, they will be fun to watch, with a strong, athletic team that has been building momentum over several years.
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