espnW Soccer Player Of The Week: Minnesota's Simone Kolander

Minnesota native Simone Kolander loves to play on the road, and she had a hand in all three goals during the Gophers' two wins. Courtesy of Minnesota

Like a majority of her teammates at the University of Minnesota, Simone Kolander found no reason to stray far from her roots when it came time to choose a college.

That isn't to say she and the Gophers are strictly homebodies.

On the strength of two game-winning goals from Kolander, Minnesota took to the road this past week and upset ranked Big Ten foes Ohio State and Penn State. Add it up, and the Gophers accounted for half of the home losses sustained by all ranked teams. That, in turn, is one reason Minnesota's best is espnW's national player of the week.

It is perhaps not as numerically impressive as 10,000 lakes, but Minnesota's roster lists 17 players as products of in-state hometowns, including Lakeville's Kolander (all of the hometowns are within roughly 50 miles of the university's St. Paul campus). Contrast that with Ohio State and Penn State, not only the most recent opponents but premier programs in states with populations more than double that of Minnesota. The Buckeyes feature nine in-state players, the Nittany Lions one more than that. Among Big Ten teams, only Michigan State and Rutgers have more homegrown players than Minnesota.

It helps, of course, when homegrown means players like Kolander, a graceful and fleet-footed 5-foot-11 attacking presence who leads the team with five goals and could become the first Gophers player to score more than seven in a season since Taylor Uhl, at the time the reigning national scoring champion, transferred to Stanford before the 2013 season.

Kolander played a role in all three of the goals Minnesota scored in the wins. Trailing 1-0 into the second half at Ohio State on Thursday, and in danger of losing a fourth consecutive conference opener on the road, Minnesota pulled level on a quality long-range shot by Sydney Squires in the 67th minute. The finish required a deft touch and setup passes from Haley Helverson and Tori Burnett, but Kolander's long throw-in moments before the goal set the entire sequence in motion. That set the stage for her winner in the 80th minute, a second effort after her initial shot was denied at close range.

Three days later at Penn State, then ranked in the top five and a team had lost just four conference home games dating back a decade, Kolander spotted a Squires run, held off a defender for position on the cross and scored from close range in the 32nd minute for the only goal in a 1-0 win that left Minnesota tied atop the Big Ten standings.

Few teams will make more productive road trips this season, and not entirely because of what showed up in the box scores.

Not included in her player-of-the-week portfolio was Kolander's place on the team that won the intrasquad sand volleyball tournament staged to pass the time between soccer games. Whether it was that, the pleasantly unfamiliar experience of charter flights from the Twin Cities to Columbus, Ohio, and back home from State College, Pennsylvania, or the more familiar feeling of hours on a bus between stops, the road can be as much opportunity as disadvantage.

"I love road trips," said Kolander, who also spent the summer on a star-studded Seattle Sounders W-League team. "At home, it's different because you're going to class and then you show up an hour before the game and then you warm up to play the game. You go home, all to your separate dorm rooms and apartments. And then maybe the next day, we train for an hour and you go off and do whatever by yourself. It's nice on a road trip because you're really with your team all the time. ... You really get to know people better and build that team chemistry and a team unity. I think that was huge this weekend because it was such a long trip and we had so much downtime."

As to whether the chemistry produced the wins or the wins produced the chemistry, it doesn't much matter when you end up with both. The Gophers left home believing they could win, Kolander said. Her goals ensured they did.

"Until you're actually able to take that belief and turn it into something great on the field, like what we were able to come up with in two wins this weekend, it's hard -- you can't just live off that false hope," Kolander said. "Having these two wins proves to ourselves that we are that caliber of team, like we can do really big things. We're worthy of being a top-ranked team. It just gives us so much confidence."

Confidence she and her teammates took home with them.