With a goal and three assists between them in the past two weeks, Steph Brandt and MacKenzie Misel have earned back-to-back Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors.
To have players from the same team win consecutive weekly awards is a rare feat, considering the parity throughout the conference. But beyond the recognition from outside the program, it speaks to a larger trend inside Gophers women’s soccer: freshmen stepping in and making an immediate impact.
In other words, Brandt and Misel are no enigma. In fact, of Minnesota’s seven current seniors, five started nearly every game as freshmen. Katie Bethke, Julie Rezac and Kylie Kallman started all 19, and Bethke and Molly Rouse were, respectively, second and fourth on the team in points.
And according to head coach Mikki Denney Wright, this year’s senior class has been the catalyst for the freshmen that arrive each year ready to contribute.
“They really set the standard … of freshmen being prepared,” Denney Wright said. “We don’t carry a huge roster number. We need our freshman to come in and impact [the team].”
So perhaps it is no surprise that Brandt is tied for the team lead in game-winning goals, or that Misel and fellow freshman Lauren Bauer were responsible for all of Minnesota’s assists against Iowa and Illinois, in the first weekend of Big Ten play no less.
In recent years, one or two freshmen have, without fail, made a splash for the Gophers. A year ago it was goalkeeper Cat Parkhill, who played nearly every minute and finished the season with a 0.70 goals against average, and Olivia Bagnall, who was fifth on the team in points. In 2008, Tamara Strahota had the fourth most points on a team with eight seniors.
Brandt has started all but one game this season at striker and scored her first career goal in the Gophers’ home opener. It might have been nothing more than insurance late in a 2-0 win over UC-Santa Barbara, but it was quite a way to announce her arrival. She brought down a long pass from sophomore Marissa Price, took a touch into space and blistered a shot into the top corner.
A broken arm kept Brandt from playing last season, but she said her redshirt year was critical to developing her skills on the ball and familiarity with the program.
“It allowed me to see where I needed to be to possibly get into the starting lineup that was full of very good, veteran players,” Brandt said.
Early in training this summer, Misel was nursing a minor injury of her own. It was nothing that might sideline her the whole season, but it delayed her practicing long enough that once she rejoined the team, the learning curve was mighty steep. Misel said recuperating was at turns frustrating and emotional, but she has improved steadily since returning to health.
“It’s all about proving yourself when you get here,” Misel said.
As the year has progressed, Misel’s playing time has increased. She played substantial minutes against Iowa and Illinois, and it was clear why. On Sunday, her picture perfect cross set up Bethke’s game winner against the 20th-ranked Illini.
Of course, none of this works unless the team is a meritocracy. A three-year starter and a newly arrived freshman must be weighed objectively, and just as importantly, the freshman must believe she has the same chance as the veteran. On Denney Wright’s team, for good reason, the freshmen believe.
“Coach Mikki is very fair,” Brandt said. “She will play the best player, whoever is working the hardest and getting the most done on the field.”
- Awards continue to pour in for Gophers soccer (9/27 blog)
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