In earning a place in the NCAA tournament, the Wisconsin women’s soccer team will face a familiar foe in the University of California-Los Angeles in the first round of play Saturday.
The Badgers (12-7-1, 5-5-1 Big Ten) will travel to the home of the third-seeded Bruins for a second time this season. Back on Aug. 31, then-No. 14 UW suffered its first loss to a UCLA team that at the time was ranked No. 2 in the nation.
“It is kind of funny how we started the season with them being one of our first games and this could be an end to it if we don’t win,” senior captain Monica Lam-Feist said. “Right now, we are just excited to be playing and are ready to just throw it out there on Saturday.”
An offense that struggled to find offensive opportunities left the Badgers shut out against the Bruins, 2-0. UW totaled just six shots throughout the game, taking just one shot in the first half. UCLA controlled the ball and maintained a constant pressure on the Wisconsin defensive line, finding 11 shots in the second half.
For Wisconsin, keeping possession of the ball and working it toward the Bruins’ goal will be necessary if UW wants to keep its season alive.
“As soon as we win the ball, we need to find our outlet pass and look to keep moving it throughout the field,” freshman midfielder McKenna Meuer said. “Switching the field is going to help us open up their backline and open up their midfield, and if we can use the outsides to our advantage, that will help us score.”
The Bruins are coming off a two-game losing streak – their only two loses of the season — and will be looking to redeem themselves after being upset in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament by Stanford.
But defense is where the Bruins excel. In every game except their latest losses, UCLA kept its opponent shut out or to a single score. The Bruins have outshot their opponents by an average of 17.5 shots to 6.9, and goaltender Katelyn Rowland boasts nine shutouts on the season.
Wisconsin is likewise entering the game with two loses in its recent past. UW was defeated in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament by Michigan, 2-0.
Opening up the season with a 5-1 record, UCLA being that one loss, the Badgers found themselves struggling in Big Ten play with a disappointing 1-4-1 record. However, the team turned its play around with five straight wins and looked to be gaining momentum heading into the Big Ten tournament.
UW has come along way since the start of the season and a matchup with one of its first opponents will be a test to how much this team has come together.
“Looking back from the start, we watched some film this week of a couple of games from earlier in the season and you can definitely tell that we’ve matured as a group, and as players as well,” Lam-Feist said. “Right now we are just excited to be playing and are ready to just throw out there on Saturday.”
A spot in the NCAA tournament was no guarantee for Wisconsin. After their loss to Michigan on Oct. 31, the Badgers waited until Monday night to learn if their season would continue or come to an abrupt end.
This is Wisconsin’s third trip to the NCAA tournament in the last four years and the 17th time in program history. Last year, the Badgers failed to earn a spot with a 10-7-3 record. For Lam-Feist and the other six senior Badgers, making the tournament fulfilled a career goal.
“I am super excited, especially last year not being able to make the NCAA [tournament],” Lam-Feist said. “So my senior year, I am excited I have the opportunity, and I don’t want to waste it.”
It also sets a precedent on the team’s expectations looking ahead. For younger players like Meuer, a bid in the NCAA tournament is now viewed not as the exception, but the expectation.
“The seniors have gone three of their four years that they have been here, and we talked a lot about that over the season and how fun it was with the culture of our team and make it an expectation every single year,” Meuer said. “I think that by going this year, it makes that step toward trying to go every single year that we play at UW.”
For now, the team focuses not on the future, but on the 90 minutes that lie ahead.
“We’ve bonded over the last three and four months. You come in as strangers and you leave as best friends, and it’s sort of strange what happens,” Meuer said. “People four months ago that I didn’t know are my best friends, and you don’t want to give up playing with them. You will do whatever it takes to keep playing for them.”