What accounts for the growing success of Gopher women's sports?
By Pat Borzi
Photos courtesy University Athletics
Consider the 2016-17 season for Gopher women’s sports: Hockey reached an unprecedented sixth consecutive NCAA Frozen Four, sustaining the excellence that brought four national championships the previous five seasons and boasting an NCAA points leader, Kelly Pannek. Volleyball produced the national player of the year in Sarah Wilhite while making its second consecutive Final Four appearance, a program first, and attracting rocking sellout crowds to the Sports Pavilion. No sports venue on campus matches the energy of the Pav when the Gophers are rolling.
Soccer, led by Coach of the Year Stefanie Golan, won its first Big Ten tournament championship since 1995 and an automatic bid to its third NCAA tournament in four years, while defender Rashida Beal (B.S. ’16) was picked No. 35 overall by FC Kansas City in the National Women’s Soccer League draft. Softball won its third Big Ten tournament in four years and reached its fifth consecutive NCAA tournament; the Gophers were ranked No. 1 in the nation by coaches at the end of the regular season with a record of 54-3. Gymnastics qualified as a team for its 22nd consecutive NCAA regionals.
That’s not to mention 71 academic All-Big Ten selections with cumulative grade point averages of 3.0 or above. The previous year, in 2015-16, women’s athletics accounted for 50 of the U’s 72 Big Ten Distinguished Scholars, honoring those with 3.7 or higher GPAs.
What do these programs have in common? Dynamic coaches who root for each other to succeed, recruit high achievers, and demand excellence in competition and the classroom. And student athletes, in turn, who do not take the privilege of competing at the Division I level for granted and who support each other in large and small ways.
“One of the things that’s really neat around this place now is, there is a buzz,” says Golan. “There is a tangible excitement of people who really believe in what you can accomplish here.”
But the groundwork for today’s successes stretches back a decade or more.
Since 2000, no other program at the U, men’s or women’s, matches hockey’s national stature. Founding coach Laura Halldorson won three national titles before turning the program over to assistant Brad Frost, who added four more. Ridder Arena, where the Gophers play, was the first collegiate facility built specifically for a women’s team, and stands to the vision of Kathleen (B.A. ’47, UM-Duluth, B.S. ’60) and Robert Ridder, who led the fundraising. Murals high on Ridder’s walls honor 12 Olympians, 18 All- Americans, and photos of championship teams adorn the hallway outside the Gopher dressing room. (Kathleen Ridder, 94, died in early April. “Her impact on our program is immeasurable, and she will be greatly missed,” said Frost.)
This year’s team lacked the depth and star power of other Gopher teams—no Amanda Kessel (B.S. ’16) or Natalie Darwitz (B.S. ’07) flying down the ice, no Hannah Brandt (B.S. ’16) setting them up, no Noora Raty (B.A. ’13) making impossible saves in goal. But the Gophers persevered anyway, led by first team All-Americans Lee Stecklein on defense and Pannek up front.
Stecklein, a 2014 U.S. Olympian, joined Krissy Wendell, Darwitz, Raty, and Brandt as the Gophers’ only three-time All-Americans. Pannek and forward Sarah Potomak compensated for the lengthy absence of Dani Cameranesi, the U’s most dynamic forward, to an injury.
And junior goaltender Sidney Peters, in her first season as a starter, excelled in the final weeks. Peters shut out Minnesota-Duluth 1-0 in the NCAA quarterfinals to send the Gophers to the Frozen Four, the only unseeded team to advance.
“Success looks differently to many people,” Frost says. “Success for us is getting great people in here that get a great education. Our team’s GPA was a 3.5 last semester. To us, that’s success, when our kids are embodying and fulfilling our values each and every day. That looks different on the big scoreboard at the end of every game. The day to day, it’s a huge thing for us.”
Now-retired Director of Athletics Joel Maturi always sought women to coach women’s sports, but he made two key exceptions. One was Frost. Another was Hugh McCutcheon, the two-time U.S. Olympics coach who assumed the job after the 2012 Games in London, succeeding Mike Hebert when Hebert retired.
Under Hebert, the Gophers were already a nationally respected program, reaching the Final Four three times from 2003 to 2009. McCutcheon took them even higher. Though eventual NCAA champion Stanford ousted the Gophers in last fall’s national semifinals, individual honors poured in.
The American Volleyball Coaches Association and espnW named Wilhite national Player of the Year and she also won the Big Ten Player of the Year Award, giving the Gophers back-to-back conference players of the year after Daly Santana won it last year. Hannah Tapp (B.S.B. ’16) and Big Ten Setter of the Year Samantha Seliger- Swenson joined Wilhite on the all-conference team. Paige Tapp (B.S.B. ’16), Hannah’s twin sister, became the first Gopher to win a Senior CLASS award, which honors one NCAA athlete nationally in each sport for all-around student athlete achievement.
Nothing beats the game night atmosphere at the Pav, particularly when the crowd yells back the public address announcer’s call of “Point U!” The Gophers own a 36-match winning streak at home since 2014. Average attendance of 4,835 in the 5,500-capacity arena ranked fourth nationally and even outdrew U women’s basketball. Volleyball became such a thing that Elvera “Peps” Neuman, basketball’s famed “Blanket Lady” who stirs up the crowd by galloping along the sidelines waving a maroon and gold blanket, took in the Gophers’ home NCAA Tournament match against Hawaii.
“The atmosphere grew tremendously during my four years,” Wilhite says. “In the playoffs, it helped to have the big crowd behind you.”
Stefanie Golan’s father, Geno Kraay, was an All-American goaltender at the Air Force Academy before becoming a fighter pilot and career officer. Before coming to the U, Golan coached at West Point. No surprise, then, that the energetic Golan recruits similar types: self-driven and committed.
“We look for competitors, people who enjoy that aspect of it, who when you watch them play they have an absolute passion for what they’re doing,” Golan says.
“I like watching a team that has its back against the wall. How does that player you’re interested in respond and impact that team in those moments? That’s the piece of the natural leadership. We want kids that have that within them. Because the more they have that, the less hand-holding and the more development we get to do.”
Last year, for the first time, the Gophers won both the Big Ten regular-season and conference tournament championship. Students noticed. This year, the Gophers sold out three games at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium, with a record 1,758 watching the Big Ten opener against Penn State, a 1-1 draw.
Simone Kolander (B.A. ’16) earned her second consecutive Big Ten Forward of the Year award, and goaltender Tarah Hobbs (B.A. ’16) set a school record with 33 career shutouts. Midfielder Josee Stiever (B.A. ’16) made All-Big Ten first-team, Beal was named conference Defender of the Year and, for the second time, an Academic All-American.
“It speaks to a person’s character that they approach every aspect of their experience with the notion of being successful,” Beal says. “Our coaches definitely emphasized doing well in school, and it’s kind of a holistic thing. If you struggle in one area, it’s going to pull you down in others.”
Maturi’s legacy rests with his support for a well-rounded program, especially for women. Even today, Maturi and his wife Lois often turn up in the stands at women’s hockey and volleyball.
But here’s an untold story: Maturi hesitated hiring Jessica Allister as softball coach in 2010, even though he liked everything about her. Allister was just six years out of Stanford, where she had been an All-American catcher. Were six years as an assistant with Georgia, Stanford, and Oregon enough?
“Jessica knows this—she wasn’t the first person I offered the job to,” Maturi says. “I was nervous and hesitant to hire Jessica because she was only 27 years old. She was confident. Had a vision, a silent quiet energy. After more than one person said no, I offered her the job.”
Good call. Allister took a 234-102 record, six consecutive 30-win seasons, and four straight NCAA berths into 2017, where Sara Groenewegen, two-time All-American pitcher, leads another talented group. Groenewegen recorded her 1,000th career strikeout in March, a milestone reached by only two other Gophers.
“The leadership we have from our senior group, the depth we have in the pitching staff, the skill set we have at different infield positions, our ability to score up and down the lineup, I think this is our best team,” Allister says.
Like her Gopher coaching peers, Allister recruits high achievers.
“You want to bring in people who want to take advantage of everything the University of Minnesota has to offer, then go into the world afterward and make an impact,” she says. “That’s one of the really cool things about being a collegiate coach. You see 17- or 18-year-old girls come in, and they leave as women ready to make a difference in the world. The transformation is one of the coolest things.”
Fellow coaches gravitate to Hugh McCutcheon, a 6-foot-5-inch New Zealander known for his calm straightforwardness. He challenges standard assumptions of team dynamics. He’s big on “the process,” or day-by-day improvement during a long season, instead of victory-based goals. He looks for great teammates who support each other while demanding excellence. And McCutcheon dismisses the notion of team as family, because it’s phony.
“With families, there’s a level of dysfunction you have to tolerate, because they’re your family,” McCutcheon says. “But I don’t think dysfunction is a huge part of high functioning teams.
“I think there’s a kind of misconception that teams have to be pseudo-sororities or fraternities, they’ve all got to be best friends. I think that’s not only naïve, but also unrealistic,” McCutcheon says. “You don’t have 18 best friends, and they don’t change year to year as teams do. By taking the whole friend expectation off the table and making it about being a great teammate, and understanding that’s the best thing you can do for the team, the connections that get formed from that starting point are based in truth. Because they’re based in something real and authentic, the connections become real and authentic themselves.”
Frost says he and McCutcheon frequently pick each other’s brains about recruiting and culture-building strategies. “Frosty,” as McCutcheon calls him, applies McCutcheon’s notion of process to his own team.
“I can’t go to our players and say, ‘Let’s go win this game,’ ” Frost says. “Yes, that’s the outcome we want. But the process for us is, have a great attitude, give the best effort you can, play for the person next to you, keep it simple on the power play, no undisciplined penalties. If we do those things, then we’ll have a real good chance of winning.”
Women’s athletics booster Deborah Olson, the retired Nelson Laboratories CEO, finds this refreshing. The daughter of the late Miami Dolphins owner Joe Robbie, Olson donated $900,000 to help fund soccer’s Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium, named for her mother, who owned the old Fort Lauderdale/Minnesota Strikers of the North American Soccer League. Olson was also part of the search committee that hired current Director of Athletics Mark Coyle.
“Watching the coaches nowadays, they don’t necessarily talk about winning all the time. They talk about the team and the learning,” Olson says. “They almost sound more like teachers do than coaches. I found it with Brad Frost. I found it with Stefanie Golan. I find it with Hugh McCutcheon. It’s a different philosophy than the hard-nosed way coaches were always portrayed, being tough and yelling.”
ATHLETES SUPPORTING ATHLETES
The support among athletes and coaches reminds basketball coach Marlene Stollings of Winthrop University, her first stop as a head coach.
“The smaller the school, there’s usually more camaraderie because you see each other more,” Stollings says. “When you get onto larger campuses like ours, it becomes much more difficult, because the coaches are in different buildings and things like that. At a larger school, you have to make a concerted effort to make those connections.”
And women athletes do at the U. Beal noticed more of her peers at soccer matches last season, and loved it. “It’s empowering to see other female athletes doing really well in their sports,” Beal says. “It reinforces the idea that it is something important, and that we’re successful at it.”
Basketball player Joanna Hedstrom (B.S.B. ’16), the daughter of 1980s Gopher hoops standout Mary Dressen (B.S. ’85), attends volleyball and hockey games when her studies permit and her own team isn’t playing. Hedstrom embodies the student athlete ideal. A three-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree, she graduated summa cum laude from the Carlson School in three years with a business degree. Now she’s working toward a masters degree in human resources and industrial relations.
“It’s a pretty tight-knit community with women’s sports here,” Hedstrom says. “As female athletes, we go to each other’s games. It’s encouraging to see their success and try to, in a healthy way, compete and try to do just as well as them.
“We’ve heard it from a lot of our alumni, that it was much different before Title IX—different rules, fewer opportunities for women. I feel like there’s a sense of female athletes playing to thank the people that paved the way for us. We’re supporting each other and we’re supporting female athletes and women’s sports in general just because it has that historical aspect. It hasn’t always been this way.”