At the end of last season, Minnesota lost forwards Sydney Squires and Julianna Gernes, its two top scorers in 2017, as they both graduated. To replace Squires and Gernes, head coach Stefanie Golan has used three freshman forwards in all seven matches this season: McKenna Buisman, Megan Gray and Patricia Ward.
Buisman, Gray and Ward scored in Minnesota's first three wins of the season. Ward scored the only goal in Minnesota's 1-0 win against Utah on Aug. 17, Buisman scored the match-winning goal in a 2-1 win over Utah State on Aug. 19 and Gray scored the golden goal in double overtime in the Gophers' 2-1 win over Ole Miss on Aug. 24. In addition to her match-winning goal on Aug. 17, Ward has one assist this season.
Gray said these performances prove Minnesota has depth at the forward position.
"We can switch positions and combine together," Gray said. "Knowing that we were able to do this as freshmen is exciting."
Gray has started in four matches, while Ward has started in three. Buisman has played in all seven matches as a substitute.
Golan said that having more offensive options allows her to mix up the starting lineup depending on the opponent and whether a player is trending in the right direction.
"There's a lot of different combinations that can go out there," Golan said. "It's nice that we have so many playing up to the level that these guys are."
Buisman, Gray and Ward have played forward alongside starters April Bockin and Makenzie Langdok. Ward said much of the preparation of going onto the field as a substitute comes the moment when a player knows she is coming into the game.
"You have a fresh set of legs to give someone else a break, which means you should be working hard," Ward said. "You mentally prepare yourself and then go out and you go at it. You give all you can because there are people who have been on the field longer than you."
Each of these freshmen come from different states: Ward is from Newport News, Virginia; Gray is from Ankeny, Iowa; and Buisman is from Mankato, Minnesota.
Buisman said the Gophers' upperclassmen have welcomed the freshmen to the team.
"Building that trust and relationships off the field can translate a lot to good chemistry on the field," Buisman said. "Our team chemistry is great."
Gray said Minnesota doesn't divide itself up by class or position.
"I don't look at someone and go, 'oh, she's a senior. She's a junior.' I think of us as one big family," she said. "I have some great friendships with a lot of the upperclassmen that I know will be withheld even when they leave next year or the following year."
Gray, Buisman and Ward may see more action this weekend when the Gophers face Illinois (5-2-0) and No. 12 Northwestern (6-0-1).
Golan said the freshman class is competitive and wants to learn at every possible opportunity.
"They want to make an impact," Golan said. "Every single one of them comes out every day to compete and with that mindset."