Sept. 10, 2009
By Larry Watts
Katie Bethke's appearance has undergone a bit of a change over the past few years. But one thing that hasn't changed for this University of Minnesota junior is her desire to reach the ultimate pinnacle of her soccer talent.
Back in her freshman year of high school in Eau Claire, Wis., Bethke joined an Olympic Development Team in Minnesota, where she soon picked up the nickname of "Bone."
"I was very, very tiny at the time, something like 5-foot-2 and 90 pounds," says Bethke, who has now grown to 5-7. "I looked more like a cross country runner."
The choice of playing for a club program in Minnesota rather than one in her home state was an easy one for Bethke and her family.
"Travel distance," she says. "There isn't much soccer being offered in northern Wisconsin and it was a four-hour drive to the nearest club program. The trip to Minnesota was only about an hour and a half."
Little did Bethke know at the time, but that would be the start of many trips to Minnesota. Golden Gophers coach Mikki Denney Wright and her staff are very active in helping out programs in her state and it was through some of these training sessions Bethke was first introduced to Wright's style of coaching.
But as it came time for the two-time all-state selection to make her college choice, Northwestern seemed to have the edge over the Gophers as well as Wisconsin, Purdue, Marquette, Dartmouth, Princeton, William & Mary and Missouri. However, a week before she signed the dotted line, she switched to Minnesota.
Bethke made an immediate impact for the Golden Gophers. Starting all 19 games, she led her squad with 10 assists, second-highest ever for a Gopher freshman, to go along with 10 goals and was named to the Big Ten's All-Freshman team.
That was supposed to be a signal of great things to come. But while playing for the Boston Renegades in the W-League the following summer, Bethke started feeling very sluggish.
"I don't know if I had been working out too much or the amount of games finally caught up to me, but I was feeling pretty weak," she says. "It turned out I had had mono for about a month, so I was sent home. After about a week and a half of rest, somehow I got cleared to play again, so I went back to Boston for the playoffs."
As it turned out, the mononucleosis returned, knocking her out of preseason conditioning for the 2008 season at Minnesota.
"I still wasn't 100 percent by the time I was finally cleared to play the second time, but then I messed up my ankle really bad," she says. "That was the first time an injury has ever kept me out of games. I missed three games and was only thrown in for 10 or 15 minutes in several others.
"I had to get my ankle wrapped and then after I put my sock and shin guard on, my ankle would be wrapped again on the outside of my shoe. I couldn't go as fast as I would have liked. Cutting or putting weight on my foot when I was trying to push off was a real problem."
Although the forward/midfielder was able to make 20 starts, her offensive production dropped to four goals and two assists.
"It was just an awful way for my season to go health-wise," she says. "Fortunately, the team was fine."
Even with Bethke hobbling through most of the season, the Gophers put together their best year in school history at 22-4. They claimed a share of the Big Ten's regular season championship and advanced to the third round of the NCAA Tournament before losing 1-0 in overtime to top-ranked Notre Dame on a penalty kick.
The five inches Bethke has grown since her freshman year of high school hasn't been the only big change in her appearance. Midway through last year, she decided to abandon the blonde hair she had been wearing for the past four years and went back to her brown roots.
"I was just being silly," Bethke says of her temporary blonde appearance. "I was getting too blonde and looking kind of fake. My natural color is much easier to maintain."
Bethke returned to the W-League again this summer and played for Ottawa, helping the powerful Fury win their sixth straight division championship. She plans on heading back to Ottawa again next summer.
"It's a great opportunity to play with some high caliber college and international players," she says. "A lot of the players end up playing professionally, so the league attracts a lot of scouts."
Bethke is already proving her ankle problems are behind her. She scored two goals in her first three games, including the game-winner in a 1-0 victory at Kennesaw State. She added her team-leading third goal Sunday in a 4-0 win over North Dakota State.
Currently ranked No. 23 nationally, the Golden Gophers have been picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten race.
"We had a great senior class last year and everyone knows we lost a lot of people," Bethke says. "This is a smaller team, but we still want to pick up right where we left off. There's a lot of depth on this year's team; we have seven very good players coming in off the bench."
For most students, junior year would mark the halfway point of their college experience. But with a major in chemistry and a career path headed to dermatology, Bethke knows there is still a long path to travel.
"I'm going to be in school the rest of my life," she says with a deep sigh. "It's going to take me five years to go through undergrad because of all these classes I have to take and I didn't want to be overloaded in one semester. Then there will be four years of med school."
Bethke traces her career path back to a conversation she had with her father, who is a dentist in Eau Claire.
"He always wanted me to go into health care because it's a good field and there will always be jobs available," she says. "I did a lot of research and dermatology really appealed to me. It's a chance to have an impact on other people and it's not something where it's life or death or you might be on call 24 hours a day. I can still have a life."
And if Bethke has anything to say about it, soccer will still be a big part of her life. She has dreams of playing professionally and possibly helping out with the Minnesota team during her fifth year of understudy work.
"I'll head back to Ottawa next summer and take it from there," she says. "There will be combines after my senior season and we'll see how everything pans out."
Although her body has stopped growing, her status in the soccer community appears to be getting bigger by the year.