Minnesota has experienced a season of ups and downs but they have stuck to their game plan and that has them on the upswing right before the postseason begins.
The Gophers rank 10th in the Great Lakes region in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll as the regular season ends amid a battle for postseason positioning against Iowa.
The Gophers (9-7-1 overall, 5-4-0 Big Ten) sit in sixth place in the conference, just behind Ohio State and Indiana, and have an opportunity to move into sole possession of fourth place with a win against the Hawkeyes (7-7-4 overall, 3-6-0 Big Ten) and a Buckeyes and Hoosiers loss.
A fourth place finish in the Big Ten would go down as the highest-ranked finish for coach Mikki Denney Wright and the best since 1999 for the Gophers.
Minnesota enters the weekend on a three game winning streak that all began with an upset win against then No. 8 Nittany Lady Lions.
For coaches and players the dramatic upset served as a culmination of hard work after three lesson learning losses.
Prior to that game the Gophers had just returned from a terrible road trip against Indiana and Purdue where they allowed seven goals on the weekend. To make matters worse, Minnesota lost to the Buckeyes 2-1 in overtime Friday night before facing Penn State.
The Gophers dedicated themselves to scoring goals this season, after scoring only three conference goals last season, departing from their traditionally strong defensive approach. With the divergence came a struggle to adapt to the new system.
The offense turned around this season and now has 29 goals for the year, the most since the 1999 season, but the defense struggled at times.
Minnesota continued to use a three defender system while most Big Ten teams employ a four defender system and rather than shake things up they decided to stay the course.
"Indiana and Purdue was disappointing as much for the players and the coaches," assistant coach Kate Cortis said. "But when you're faced with adversity you can either change or remain more resolute in your system. We chose the latter."
With the offense looking strong, the Gophers needed to shift their attention to team defense to ensure success.
After allowing seven goals Minnesota became more determined to regain their strong defense of years past by improving themselves.
"I thought when we came back we needed to focus on being successful," Cortis said. "We said 'let's get better against three forwards, balls in from behind and clearing balls.' "
Minnesota did not change their system, but they moved personnel around. Trailing 2-0 midway through the first half against Purdue, Denney Wright decided to put junior keeper Lindsey Dare in goal.
Since then Dare has shutout her last three opponents and has given the Gophers a new attitude between the pipes.
"She calms us down and keeps us composed," freshman defender Kylie Kallman said.
"She's an incredible athlete. The things she does look easy but they'd be goals 90 percent of the time against other goalkeepers," Cortis said.
Minnesota has started to pose a serious threat in the Big Ten with their recently improved defensive play.
"Once they went through it (the Purdue and Indiana losses) they don't make those mistakes. They're no longer freshmen, they're playing like seniors," Cortis said of the defense.
Denney Wright also moved Kallman to outside back the next weekend and put freshman Jennie Clark at center back.
Kallman has blossomed at the position. She picked up Big Ten defender of the week honors two weeks ago and was named a member the Soccer Buzz magazine elite team of this week.
Iowa will face that defense Friday after dropping their games last weekend to Northwestern and Wisconsin.
The Hawkeyes, currently eighth in the conference, need a win or a draw to wrap up the final postseason spot. Iowa can also clinch with a Badgers loss or tie against the Wildcats.
Denney Wright said the Hawkeyes play a defensive system and rely on counterattacks for their offense.
Minnesota will have to combat that and hope for some help if they want a fourth place finish.
"They've been one of the stingiest defenses. We have to execute and finish," she said.
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