Oct. 25, 2007
by Jeff Smith
In 1993, Minnesota native Jennifer Walek wanted to play soccer in her home state, but knew she was taking a gamble with an upstart Golden Gopher program that was set to begin its first year. That same year, Mikki Denney Wright was helping North Carolina win a national championship, but when she heard the Big Ten would begin sponsoring women's soccer in 1994, she knew Minneapolis was her next destination. Both women invested their time in the Gophers' new program, which has since returned something of far greater value.
Denney Wright is now in her fourth season as Minnesota's head coach and is responsible for building on the tradition that she and Walek helped build. This past Friday at halftime of the Ohio State game, Denney Wright was responsible for honoring that tradition by having the program retire Walek's No. 19 jersey. Walek is just the second Gopher in the history of the program to have her number retired, as Jennifer McElmury had her No. 27 retired in 2004.
In two weeks, McElmury will join her former teammates Walek and Denney Wright in Minneapolis when the Gophers host the Big Ten Tournament and welcome back the 1997 squad that won the conference championship. Minnesota is one of only three schools to have claimed Big Ten regular-season titles since 1994.
In its first five years of the program, the Gophers posted an overall record of 70-27-8 (.705), was 22-5-3 (.783) in Big Ten play, and claimed the 1995 and 1997 conference titles, the latter of which stemmed from an undefeated 9-0-0 league season. Since that time, the Gophers have slipped in the standings, managing an overall mark of 78-91-9 (.463) and 34-56-2 (.380) in conference action. But just one year after taking the reigns of the program, Denney Wright guided the Big Ten's most-improved ballclub to a fifth-place finish in 2005, which was the Gophers' best result in Big Ten play since 1999. Just this past weekend, her Gophers topped No. 8 Penn State, 1-0, in double overtime for the program's greatest upset in school history. In fact, the win over the nine-time defending conference champion was Minnesota's first since the memorable 1997 campaign.
"There was a tradition that was built here at Minnesota and I feel I have a tremendous responsibility to not only honor it, but to build on it," said Denney Wright. "When I took the job here, people asked me `How can you take this program back to the top of the Big Ten?' I would always say, `Because it's been done before.' Our players have great role models to look up to in Jennifer Walek and Jennifer McElmury and I knew when I got here, I wanted to honor them."
In Denney Wright's first season in Minneapolis, the Gophers retired McElmury's jersey and now she has been able to bestow the team's top honor to "the second of the two people that have helped build this program."
Walek was the conference's Player of the Year in 1995 and was a three-time All-Big Ten first-team selection. From 1993-97, she registered 60 goals, including 17 game winners, 42 assists, 162 points, and started and played in 89 games - all of which are school records for a career. As a freshman, she set the school's single-season mark for goals (22) and points (53) and added the assists single-season record of 18 to her resume in 1995.
Denney Wright notes that she doesn't know if Walek's scoring records will ever be touched, although she admits to trying with her current standouts.
McElmury invested in Minnesota's young program in 1994, the same year Denney Wright transferred in from Tarheel country. When McElmury left the U in 1997, she was the first and only player in school history to earn first-team All-America honors and was named the Big Ten Player of the Year her junior and senior seasons. She was the team's co-captain along with Denney Wright in 1997, helped lead the Gophers to three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, and was awarded the coveted Big Ten Medal of Honor in 1998. She ranks second behind Walek in career points (124), goals (49) and assists (26).
"Jennifer was a huge part of the program and I was very excited when she came the year after I did," Walek said. "We probably started playing against one another before we were 10 until we became teammates on our club team at 14. Not only was she an awesome player, but she's an awesome person."
Denney Wright agrees.
"I played against some pretty good ones at Carolina, but she was the most talented and complete player I've played against," she said. "She out-trained everyone and anyone that played in the past remembers that. I feel very lucky to have gotten the chance to play next to her."
That is one of the many reasons why the current Gopher coach has opted to honor the past, while focusing on the future. But it hasn't just been former players that have invested in the Gophers' soccer program. Minnesota has one of the nation's top fan bases and facilities in the country, thanks largely in part to Deborah Olson. After endowing a scholarship in the name of her mother, the late Elizabeth Lyle Robbie, in 1995, Olson donated $900,000 - the third-largest gift ever given to Minnesota women's athletics - for a new soccer facility, which also bears her mother's name.
The new venue makes hosting the Big Ten Tournament in the coming weeks even more special for the Gophers. When Minnesota first hosted the postseason tournament during the magical 1997 season, it had to do so off campus at the National Sports Center in nearby Blaine.
"It will be great to have the tournament back at the U and get the 1997 team back together again," Walek said. "I'm really proud of the job Mikki has done in turning this program around as well. It was exciting to see her come back and get the head coaching job because she has always been a natural leader. As a player, she always brought 110 percent to every practice and every game."
Denney Wright admits that she has thrown her heart and soul into getting the program back to the success the teams in the mid-90s were accustomed to. She calls it her life mission and notes that with a growing contingent of alumni, she is constantly being pushed.
But by embracing and honoring the tradition of the program, Denney Wright will always have her former teammates in her corner. Walek for one, was deeply touched and honored by her jersey retirement this past Friday. Several friends and family members were in attendance for the ceremony, including daughters Isablelle (4) and Emily (2).
In a mater of weeks, Walek (now Rippentrop by marriage) will return to Minneapolis once again to be honored. This time, however, she will share the spotlight with the squad that went 18-3-2 and boasted four players on the All-Big Ten first team and three on the second team.
For Denney Wright, not only will the reunion be a celebration, but it will also be a reminder of where this program has been and the path she hopes it soon travels.
"You have to have ownership in this, since you were one of the first to be a part of all this," she said. "I can appreciate what it took to build this program and I know where it will go. I don't have to fake it when I take recruits on campus. It's easy to sell something you believe in."
Just like it was easy for her to invest in the program she helped build.