The 2008 Minnesota soccer team did not have a captain. Instead, it had eight seniors who knew how to lead because their entire college career had taught them the merits of hard work and leadership through a four-year upward battle.
When the majority of this year’s graduating class committed to the team in 2004, Minnesota looked like a team in need of a helping hand.
The team held an 8-10-0 record at the close of the 2004 season, winning just two conference matchups and ending the season 10th in the Big Ten. Opponents outscored the Gophers 26-17.
Forward Lindsey Schwartz said though the team had not been experiencing a strong period, she fell in love with the University of Minnesota and the philosophy of her coaches, committing to the team in 2004.
Fellow senior Kelsey Hood said, “Why not be a part of a program that’s growing and to make a program be in the top 16 in the country?” Hood said. “That was kind of big for me.”
As this year’s seniors took to the field for the first time in 2005, the team saw some improvement. Minnesota finished the season with a .526 win percentage and control of fifth place in the Big Ten. It was the Gophers’ best finish since Sue Montagne’s final year of coaching in 1999.
In 2004 and 2005 the Gophers were led by stalwart goalkeeper Molly Schneider. Senior goalkeeper Lindsey Dare, who joined the team in 2004 but sat out her freshman season because of injury, said she learned a lot from watching Schneider work.
After 2005’s improvement, Minnesota saw itself back at the bottom of the Big Ten in 2006, tied for 10th place after winning just one conference game.
That season was a “wakeup call” for the team, Schwartz said. The players started strong, but then tapered off.
“We didn’t put in the effort a lot earlier on to carry us all through the season,” she said. “We just kind of gave up during that season.”
A lack of strong leadership was also to blame, Hood said. The team had a large graduating class in 2005.
“We were lost our sophomore year,” she said, adding that going through a void of leadership inspired many of her teammates to step up as seniors this year.
By the end of the 2007 season the team had regained some of its 2005 momentum and ended the year tied for fifth in the Big Ten.
For Hood, her junior year was a major turning point because it made her realize the kind of potential the team could have.
“We had the talent to do big things our senior year,” she said. “Our senior year was definitely when it showed.”
The flood gates broke open in 2008 as strong freshman additions and talent at all levels of the team helped post a record-breaking season.
The most memorable feat this season was the Gophers’ first third-round NCAA tournament appearance. Minnesota lost on a penalty kick midway through the overtime period, but the team was able to keep No. 1 powerhouse Notre Dame scoreless for more than 90 minutes. The undefeated Fighting Irish will compete for the national title this weekend in Cary, N.C.
Despite the loss, Dare said, simply making it as far as they did was a huge accomplishment for the program.
“[The Fighting Irish] don’t know what it’s like,” she said, “To bring a program out of the depths of the pit of darkness and bring it into the light and put the place on the map. If there’s anybody in the world that earned it, it’s this group.”
Dare’s 17 shutouts this season surged to first in the history of the Big Ten. Her .45 GAA, though falling just shy of second overall in the conference, earned the top record for the team. She beat Schneider’s 2005 .84 GAA and her own average from 2006.
Though Dare takes home these accolades, it seems fitting to some of the players that the team’s lasting accomplishments were defensive. Allowing only 12 goals in a season is a major statement and Dare has said in the past that her teammates work as hard on defense as she does. Dare said what the team has gone through will create a strong team for the future.
“We’re the ones that went through the really, really tough stuff so these girls don’t have to go through it again,” she said. “From now on people are going to work really hard. We’re going to have a very competitive practice environment because of the way that these girls trained when they got here”
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