After losing six major contributors to graduation, head coach Stefanie Golan has some big gaps to fill in her lineup. But with a strong spine down the middle, the Minnesota lineup might just be enough to make the Gophers truly dangerous next season.
At any given point last season, the senior class accounted for nearly half of Minnesota’s starting lineup. With open minutes up and down the lineup, the incoming batch of recruits might not have to wait long before making their mark. Here are seven new Gophers Golan is bringing in and where they might see the field moving forward.
(If you’re wondering how the recruiting process itself works, check out our mega explainer: Recruiting 101.)
The New Class
Patricia Ward (Newport News, Virginia): The Gophers lost their top two goal scorers from last season to graduation. That vacuum leaves the space from someone like Patricia Ward to step in and fight for a starting spot. The coaching staff raves about Ward’s physical abilities. And, though she has room to grow on the technical side, her pace might just get her major minutes on the attacking and outside midfield spots, where Golan likes her players to stretch the defense and open up space for their teammates.
Golan: “I love her ability to get behind defenses and her willingness to commit to just being dangerous and being very, very tough to play against.”
McKenna Buisman (Mankato, Minnesota): Of the four freshman who enrolled early and have already started training, Buisman and Ward were the only two to immediately pass the rigorous fitness test. Like Ward, Buisman’s initial contributions will come thanks to her fantastic physical tools. And, like Ward, her growth will come on the technical side. Buisman might be one of the few near like-for-like replacements on the team, as she takes now-graduated Kellie McGahn’s spot as a dangerous left footed winger off the bench.
Golan: “She’s someone who’s going to give us some quality minutes off the bench up there. She’ll sub in and be somebody who can continue to make teams feel the pressure.”
Lydia Ruppert (Minneapolis, Minnesota): Ruppert fits the mold of so many Gophers before her. She’s someone who can come in, learn the system, play team soccer, and grow in her role. Golan has a tendency to repeat the Herb Brooks line from the movie “Miracle” regularly: “I’m not looking for the best players. I’m looking for the right ones.” Golan compares her to someone like Maddie Castro: a smart rotation player who earns her minutes over time and adds depth to a program that desperately relies on it.
Golan: “When you look at someone who can eventually give you somewhere between 10 and 30 minutes a game, that’s valuable.”
Ana Aguado (Plymouth, Minnesota): The lone keeper of her class, Aguado will have plenty of time to get acclimated this spring and next season. With senior Kailee Sharp and sophomore Maddie Nielsen here to show her the ropes, it’s likely Aguado wouldn’t fight for a starting spot until 2019. But that’s not out of the ordinary for keepers in the Big Ten. Remember, Sharp herself spent two years as the backup to former Gopher great Tarah Hobbs. Still, Golan is excited about Aguado’s makeup.
Golan: “Natural size and competitive nature are there and now we’re going to help her develop physically in a way that’s going to put her in a position to compete.”
Megan Gray (Ankeny, Iowa): Gray will be looking to earn minutes at one of the two vacated defensive spots or possibly up in midfield. Golan has been known to play her back line major minutes, but if Gray can’t work her way on to the back line, there may still be a bit of space in the midfield rotation. She’s been cleared to play after a major injury, but, like the next two players, she won’t be in town until the summer. So Golan will have to wait for training camp to see where she ultimately might fit into the rotation.
Golan: “Megan is athletic. She’s versatile. We’re initially going to look at her at outside back but we wouldn’t be shocked if she ended up moving farther up the field because she’s good on the ball.”
Delaney Stekr (Omaha, Nebraska): A recruit from Iowa and Nebraska in the same year? Golan must really be selling that solid 2017 Minnesota corn harvest (I’m so, so sorry). Stekr is someone the Gophers staff is really excited about. Jumping into a center back role as a true freshman is no small task, so Stekr may start out as an outside back. But her ability to send a long ball over the top and provide a physical presence on the back line has Golan excited.
Golan: “She’s a kid that we look at, her long term potential in our program is tremendous.”
Alana Dressely (Cottage Grove, Minnesota): Dressely – along with Stekr and Gray – may be expected to fulfill a bit of the Gophers back line needs by committee. The staff lauds her ability to cover ground and compete. And, like most young defenders, they’re hoping they can fine tune her tactical and technical skills as they go. She’s a lefty, which seems to matter to the Minnesota soccer coaches only slightly less than it would matter to Minnesota baseball pitching coaches.
Golan: “We like a lot of what we see in her.“
Where They Fit
Before these freshman get too comfortable penciling themselves into the starting lineup, there are a number of returning players looking to soak up some of the minutes the 2017 senior class is leaving behind. A possible shift to center back for Nikki Albrecht could open up both outside back spots, where returners like Marisa Windingstad and Makenzie Langdok could compete for minutes.
Up top, Athena Kuehn is using this spring to work closer to a solidified starting role as a striker with Maddie Castro in the mix up top as well. Celina Nummerdor, who got decent minutes up top as a freshman last year, may shift to more of a midfield role. And TJ McKendrick might push captain Emily Heslin up the field and claim the holding midfield spot for herself.
All in all, the Gophers system may end up looking more like a 4-1-4-1 than last year’s 4-3-3. “If it goes the way that it’s looking to be going,” Golan explains, “the shape is going to be similar to what you would’ve seen in the fall. Except if, I think if TJ ends up being the one who slides into the holding mid role, I think you’ll see her sit a lot more than what Heslin did.”
And though the differences are fairly subtle, it does create a more clear, manageable role for a new starter like McKendrick as a true holding midfielder and gives the Gophers a chance to use two of their strongest returners – Emily Heslin and Molly Fiedler – in something of a double 10 triangle with the forward up top.
“When you’ve got Athena as the highest player up there,” Golan continued, “Heslin and Molly underneath her, you have some natural movement there where you’re going to see Heslin and Molly get beyond the restraining line and Athena dropping into midfield a bit. Kind of like what you’d see with Josee and Simone [in the past].”
Returners Emily Peterson (Heslin’s co-captain) and April Bockin will obviously have very significant roles on the team, but their positions seem likely to stay the same so they got less attention here. Arianna Del Moral, Catherine Billings, and others might also fight their way into the rotation. Golan definitely doesn’t have her lineup sheet filled out yet.
“We just graduated a class of six kids who all played a lot for us. So there’s going to be a lot of tinkering for us initially. We’ve got a few kids who have versatility, so where do they make us better? Not necessarily where do we put them to make them look good, but where do we put them where the unit looks the best.”
(For more on the new players’ club and high school careers, you can also check out the official announcement on the team website)
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