After closing out the regular season on a three-game winning streak, the UW women’s soccer team (10-8-1, 4-6-0) will host No. 1-seeded Penn State (16-2-2, 9-1-0) today in the first round of the 2003 Big Ten tournament.
Entering the tournament as the No. 8 seed, the Badgers are a heavy underdog against the top-seeded Nittany Lions, who finished the regular season ranked seventh nationally in the NSCAA/Adidas coaches’ poll.
“We’re excited that we’re going to get an opportunity to play a top-10 team in the country,” head coach Dean Duerst said. “With a result, you make some noise.”
A victory over nationally ranked Penn State could propel the Badgers into the NCAA tournament.
“If we win it, I would guarantee that a selection committee would put us into the NCAA [tournament],” Duerst said. “We’re sort of on the bubble right now, and obviously a win would be tremendous.”
Penn State enters the Big Ten tournament as the top seed for the sixth consecutive year after finishing the regular season on a nine-game winning streak. In their final regular-season game, the Nittany Lions defeated No. 11-ranked West Virginia 4-1, Oct. 26, snapping the Mountaineers’ 18-game home winning streak.
Penn State has dominated Wisconsin in the Duerst era, posting an 8-1-2 record against the Badgers since Duerst became head coach in 1994.
However, tournament history favors the Badgers. In the first round of last year’s tournament, the top-seeded Nittany Lions squandered a three-goal lead in a 4-3 loss to No. 8-seeded Illinois.
“Last year Illinois was the eight seed, and they ended up upsetting Penn State, so we know it can happen,” Duerst said. “You’re home, you’re hosting; we’ve got some great advantages here.”
The last time Wisconsin hosted the Big Ten tournament, the Badgers won the title in 1994, the tournament’s inaugural season.
“It’s exciting to have it here,” Duerst said. “Last time we had it here we won, so that’s our inspiration.”
In this season’s tournament, the Badgers will face a high-powered Penn State offense. The Nittany Lions lead the Big Ten in goals (58), points (160) and assists (44), and feature the top-two goal scorers in the conference, forward Tiffany Weimer and midfielder Joanna Lohman.
Weimer leads the Big Ten with 19 goals and 45 points, while Lohman is second in goals (15) and points (35) and leads the conference in game-winning goals (7).
“Lohman and Weimer are a great combination,” Duerst said. “The thing is, you can beat them with great team effort. When [Weimer] is around the ball, we need to pressure and cover. We’re going to surround her with eight players all the time. That will frustrate her, and that could be the difference in the game.”
Lohman and Weimer each scored in Penn State’s 5-0 victory over Wisconsin Oct. 19.
“We wanted to go at Penn State, play them straight up and see what we’d get,” Duerst said. “Maybe we should have done it a little bit differently, but we thought we’d just go after them and let our kids have a go. Soccer is a game in which you can radically change the way you play the next time you play a team. That’s what we’ll do this time.”
In response to Penn State’s offensive explosion in the 5-0 blowout, the Badgers will turn to a swarming team defense in the tournament to stifle the Nittany Lions’ heralded attack.
“We look forward to frustrating Penn State,” Duerst said. “We look forward to making this the ugliest game they’ve ever seen. That’s what we’re going to rally around. We can’t play them straight up, but we’re going to create a game plan that can be effective and can get us the result.”
Led by strong performances from midfielder Molly Meuer, who was named defensive player of the week, the Wisconsin defense allowed just five shots and one goal in the final two games of the regular season.
After shutting out UW-Green Bay in the regular-season finale, goalkeeper Stefani Szczechowski will start against Penn State’s top-ranked offense.
“She has won the spot,” Duerst said. “The great thing about it is Kristin (Sonderman) can play at any moment. That is a fortunate thing that we have two keepers ready to go and both of them can do really well.”
Riding a three-game winning streak, Szczechowski and the Badgers are confident they can upset the heavily favored Nittany Lions.
“It’s not as tough as people think,” Szczechowski said. “It’s better to be the underdog. Penn State probably thinks that they will be able to take us no problem, but they won’t know what hit them.”