For the Wisconsin men’s soccer team, it’s now or never.
After being picked to finish sixth out of seven Big Ten teams in the preseason coaches poll, UW looked to prove its critics wrong early this season in hopes of earning its first bid to the NCAA tournament since 1995.
Flash forward to Nov. 7 — with an underwhelming 2012 regular season now under their belt — the Badgers (6-7-5, 1-3-2 Big Ten) enter the Big Ten tournament in Evanston, Ill., with the 6-seed, finishing exactly where they were predicted to finish way back in August when the season began.
This time though, unlike in August, they will have only one more chance to make their season-long goal a reality.
In order to qualify for the NCAA tournament, Wisconsin will need to win-out in the Big Ten tournament and earn an automatic bid.
Set to play No. 3 seed Michigan (8-8-1, 3-2-1 Big Ten) in the opening round, UW faces a familiar foe and the only Big Ten opponent the Badgers were able to defeat this season when they beat them 2-1 at home Oct. 13 on a late goal by junior forward Nick Janus.
Despite their success against the Wolverines this year, Trask said each game in the Big Ten is a new game, and anything could happen when the two teams face off Wednesday in the opening round of the tournament.
“Every team is a good team at this point in the season,” Trask said. “Michigan has some tremendous results over the last couple of weeks and that is why they are the third seed and we’re the sixth seed.”
“They’re a team that has been playing pretty well recently, and we’re a team that thinks we have been playing pretty decently, so we are looking forward to the matchup.”
Over the last three games, the Badgers have not allowed a single goal, and over the last five games, they have only allowed two goals since Trask shook up the lineup by moving junior defender Paul Yonga to the midfield and subbing senior center-back Kyle McCrudden into the back line.
Even more impressive, freshman goalkeeper Chase Rau has earned back-to-back Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week awards, a first in the history of the program.
Put all of that together and McCrudden believes the defensive side of the ball will be critical for the Badgers if they want to advance beyond the first round of the tournament.
“I think we need to play hard,” McCrudden said. “We need to not give up any goals, so I think if we can stay solid at the back, play good defense as a team, that will lead to not giving up any goals, and then from there anything can happen.”
“If we can keep the shutout in each game, I think we have a chance to win.”
Should UW slip past a Michigan team that has won four of its last five, including a 2-1 win at No. 11 Indiana Oct. 19, it will face the winner of the game between Northwestern and Ohio State.
While UW earned 0-0 draws in both games to finish the conference season, the players and coaches know anything can happen in postseason play, especially if facing a Northwestern team in the semifinal who is also hosting the tournament this year.
“It’s going to be tight, it’s going to be one goal, maybe two goals by any team there,” Trask said. ‘We haven’t been getting a lot of luck, I would say, but you make your own luck. … Maybe the soccer gods will be smiling on us [Wednesday], maybe some luck will be coming our way.”
If the chance at a Big Ten tournament title and a berth in the NCAA tournament were not motivation enough, each game the Badgers play in this week’s tournament has the potential to be the finale of UW’s two seniors’ careers, McCrudden and forward Jerry Maddi.
While McCrudden said he thinks it will give the team even more inspiration heading into the tournament, Maddi doesn’t even want to think about the possibility Wednesday’s game might be his last wearing cardinal and white.
“I really try not to think about that,” Maddi said. “You start thinking about that, you start thinking about mistakes … instead of just focusing on the game. I know it’s coming, but honestly it doesn’t even feel like it. [I’m convinced] it isn’t going to happen.”