When Dana (Larson) Birk started playing soccer as a young girl growing up in Delaware, she volunteered to play goalie because no one else on the team would.
It was a tough job, but someone had to do it.
“I ended up in goal like most people … no one else would do it,” Birk said. “Our coach when I was younger, Bucky Stultz, asked and I said OK … Perhaps one of the best decisions I ever made.”
Fast forward a few decades and Birk — scheduled to be inducted into the University of Minnesota’s M Club Hall of fame later today — is glad she took the plunge. Birk and the other 12 new members will also be recognized at Saturday’s football game against visiting Colorado.
“This weekend’s honor feels a little unreal … like, do they have the right person? I’m definitely pinching myself,” Birk said. “Playing soccer for the University of Minnesota changed my life. I’m so thankful for my coaches, Sue Montagne and Barb Wickstrand, who saw something in me in that highlight tape and took a chance on the small-town girl from Ohio. That sort of thing doesn’t seem to happen so often any more.”
During her time at Minnesota (1996-99), Birk pieced together a career that made her the program’s record holder for wins (48) and shutouts (27). She was the starting goalie for the 1997 Big Ten championship team and four NCAA Tournament teams. She nabbed First Team All-Big Ten honors in 1997.
“That (1997) was our most successful year during my tenure for the Gophers — winning the Big Ten regular season and, of course, winning in double OT at Ohio State that season was incredible.”
That was as a sophomore.
She still remembers playing against OSU as a freshman, too.
“When I was a freshman, I started the game against OSU and my name was announced: Dana Larson from Delaware, Ohio,” she said. “OSU looked over and was like, ‘Who?’ I was named Second Team All-State my senior year I believe, but being so late to the game (basketball took priority) and not being super involved in the club scene, I was fairly unknown.”
Birk was a three-sport athlete at Delaware Hayes, where she played soccer, basketball and softball.
“Our soccer team was not good,” she said. “We played in a very strong Central Ohio soccer conference and we were the northern edge of it — Westerville North and South, Gahanna, Dublin and Worthington were all very good soccer teams at the time. We rarely won, but when we held one of the top teams in the state to just a 1-0 loss, it was a win for us.
“I likely averaged 20-30 saves a game. I was never bored back in goal.”
When Birk wasn’t getting peppered with shots during games, she was working hard on perfecting her craft before, during and after practice.
“I thank my coach, Bobby Barnes, for staying late with me after practice so many times, shooting on each other and playing keeper wars,” she said. “I also went to some of the boys’ practices and jumped in nets for them. I was always up for a challenge.”
Birk said she even went to a few OWU soccer camps led by the legendary Jay Martin — the winningest coach in NCAA soccer history and still coach of the Battling Bishops.
By the time she was a junior, she knew she had what it took to be successful at the next level.
“It was around then I realized I could likely play at a higher level in soccer than basketball in college, and began setting my sights on that dream,” Birk said. “My senior year, my dad recorded every single one of our soccer games and spliced together a highlight tape for me. I sent it out to about 15 schools in the region.
“Ohio University, my family’s school, didn’t yet have a women’s soccer program, so that was not an option. I heard back from a few, like Maryland offering me a walk-on spot, but only went on two official recruiting trips in November of my senior year. Minnesota was a no-brainer decision. Being from Buckeye Country, going to a Big Ten school to play was the only logical decision.”
Birk currently calls Minnesota home. She lives in Eagan with her husband, Ben, and three kids, Charlie (16), Evie (14) and Wynne (11).