The University of Minnesota soccer team is set to enter their 25th season in 2017, and the Gophers bring back a talented group of players from their 2016 Big Ten regular season and tournament championships.
To appreciate the accomplishment of 25 seasons of soccer at the University of Minnesota, this three-part series looks back at the timeline of the Gopher Soccer program. Do not forget to read Part One.
As the turn of the century began, it was Barb Wickstrand, an assistant under Sue Montagne, who took over as the second coach of the Minnesota soccer program. Wickstrand had a unique way of finding talent, and in 2002, she found a gem in the form of Nicki Burnie.
"I wasn't really recruited, and when I came to Minnesota I knew I wanted to play soccer, so I came to a camp and tried out for the team," said Burnie. "There was one other girl who was trying out as well. I remember Coach Wickstrand came up to me, and she said they were going to decide who made it with a fitness test. So in front of the whole camp we did this test; I ended up making it further than the other girl so I made the team and went on to become a captain my junior and senior year."
By 2004, the Gophers had decided to go a different direction after failing to reach the NCAA tournament in five years. Enter Mikki Denney Wright, a former Gopher player under Montagne, and a team captain for the Gophers in 1995 and 1996.
"I think when Mikki came in, she had a very clear vision. The spring she came in, it was hands down the hardest spring we went through," said Burnie. "I think we lost eight or nine people that spring with the coaching turnover and just the intensity she brought that players weren't accustomed to."
Denney Wright took over a program and immediately began to have an impact. Despite not taking part in postseason play, Minnesota posted the most wins in four seasons and won five of the last seven games in 2004. One of those wins came against Wisconsin, who finished the season ranked No. 28 in the nation.
"That win just brought confidence. I do remember that game because I am from Wisconsin, my whole family was there. It made us all know that we were all capable of beating good teams like Wisconsin," Burnie said.
In 2005, the team took even another step forward, this time in the Big Ten. The Gophers began to put to top teams on notice with a 1-0 double overtime loss to No. 1 ranked Penn State. The Maroon and Gold qualified for the conference tournament for the first time since 2000.
"Making the Big Ten Tournament was a really big deal. We knew we were paving the way, and during my four years I felt like I didn't get to really reap the benefits of all the hard work we put in," said Burnie. "Yet I knew that the few of us that were there for all four years really helped turn us around and helped change the mindset of the program."
Despite missing out of the Big Ten Tournament in 2006, the team still posted at least eight wins for the third straight year. By 2007, the Gophers were back in the Big Ten tournament with the help from a gifted group of recruits led by Kelsey Hood. Hood started nearly every game from her freshman season in 2005 to her senior year in 2008, and was named All-Big Ten all four years.
"I knew that there had been a transition between coaches right before I got there," said Hood. "We had a lot of Wickstrand's recruits mixed with Mikki's, and when I got to Minnesota I learned that the upperclassmen were hard working, tough nosed and work horses. They taught us young girls, who thought we knew everything, how to work hard and how to win games."
With momentum on their side, 2008 proved to a historic year in the Gopher soccer program. The Gophers began the season 10-0, which remains the best start in program history, and outscored opponents by a combined score of 23-2.
"The growth of our class finally came together in 2008, and the incoming classes kept bringing in more talent below us," said Hood. "We sort of became that class that had taught us how to work hard and grind out wins, and it helped the talented classes below us to have that same mentality."
A 1-0 victory over No. 16 Illinois launched the Gophers into the national conversation. The win propelled the Gophers to the top 25 for the first time since 1999. The team went on to finish 12-0-0 at Elizabeth Robbie Stadium, still the only perfect home record in Minnesota history.
"I have played professionally for the last number of years, and to this day that grass field is still the best grass field that I have ever played on," Hood said. "That stadium is special. We had such a great home crowd, and it was so much fun to play under those lights."
By the end of the season, the Maroon and Gold had achieved their goal of winning a Big Ten title, defeating Iowa 1-0 in the final game of the regular season.
Although the Gophers were unable to finish off the sweep of the Big Ten crowns, they did earn the opportunity to host an NCAA tournament game with a record of 20-3-0. Hosting Marquette, the Gophers looked for another achievement for the first time since 1999, an NCAA tournament victory.
Hood scored a goal at 7:54, and Clare Grimwood added another goal just seven minutes later, allowing the Gophers to hold on for a 2-1 victory.
Next, Minnesota and South Dakota State faced for the second time that season, this time for the right to head to the Sweet Sixteen. Minnesota prevailed 2-0, propelling them to their first-ever Sweet Sixteen appearance, and cementing the team in history.
"Winning the regular season Big Ten championship was special, but making it to the Sweet Sixteen was just an incredible accomplishment for us," Hood said.
This set up a matchup with the No. 1 team in the nation, Notre Dame. Minnesota fell 1-0 in a nail biter to the top ranked team in overtime. A foot of snow was took off the field prior to the game, and 97 minutes of holding the top team scoreless, ended with the Gophers heading home.
"It sucks because all I can remember is us losing that game," Hood said. "It was an ice rink and we could barely run around. I know our goalie, Lindsey Dare, had the game of her life against Notre Dame. It left sort of a sour taste because, yes, we had been the first team to make it to the Sweet Sixteen, but we knew we were good enough to continue in the tournament."
With all of the historic achievement the team accomplished in 2008, the Gophers were back on the map. The 22 wins is still the program-record for wins in a single season. Hood became the first Gopher to win the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, as a defensive midfielder. Denney Wright also captured the Coach of the Year. Giving the Gophers the perfect formula to continue success in the coming years.
Check back next week for the third and last installment of our 25 Seasons of Minnesota Soccer series.
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