Most coaches can only dream of boasting a roster full of young, yet experienced, players. The fine line between youthful exuberance – and the four years of eligibility that come with it – and veteran resolve is a mixture that can breed long-term success. It is a dream Wisconsin women’s soccer head coach Paula Wilkins is currently living in her sixth year with the program.
After earning a bid to the NCAA tournament for the third time in four years last season and finishing sixth in one of the toughest conferences in the country, Wisconsin returns nine starters to the field in 2013 – none of whom are seniors.
Wilkins, the five-time Big Ten Coach of the Year, knows having underclassmen who can contribute is a recipe for long-term success.
“It’s not just building for the season, and we want to take care of this season, but it’s also building the program for the future,” Wilkins said. “There’s a core of them that have the same philosophy and work for the same things and building on those experiences to make them better and better not just this year but next year and beyond.”
The 2012 season ended for the Badgers in Los Angeles in a first round 1-0 wrenching defeat at the hands of UCLA, a team which would make a run all the way to the elite eight.
Wisconsin was grateful to even be chosen to play in the big dance as the Badgers sat square on the bubble heading into the selection process. But now with more postseason experience under their belt, expectations are rising.
“Expectations are high,” junior forward Cara Walls said. “Everyone knows that our group has a lot of potential, and if we play up to our ability every game, we can go really far. We don’t have set destinations, but we think we can do well in the Big Ten, if not win it, and go far in the NCAA tournament this year.”
Wisconsin’s success will hinge on its Walls-led offense that exploded last season for a program record of 38 goals. The Badgers return four of the top-five point-getters this season including top-scorer and second-team All-Big Ten selection Walls who sparked the front line attack last season with 10 goals.
“Our attacking group has a lot of confidence,” Walls said. “We know there is a lot of ability with the new freshmen and the returning players. We are going to go for it because we know we have the ability.”
The Wisconsin front line will continue to gain depth as freshman forward Rose Lavelle looks to make an immediate impact on UW’s attack.
The Ohio native already has national experience playing for the United States at the U20 level this summer and has been quick to make her presence known on the field in the cardinal and white, notching her first goal and assist in Wisconsin’s first two regular season matches.
Wilkins has high hopes for what Lavelle and her fellow freshman teammates are able to bring to the team this season.
“I think they can be very impactful,” Wilkins said. “Kylie Schwarz in the back has had experience at the regional level … and I think she gives us more confidence in keeping possession coming out of the back. Rose Lavelle has U20 experience and is a very dynamic and exciting player to watch and I think she’ll compliment the players that are in there. I think they will all have a major impact and it will be exciting to watch.”
Schwarz and the rest of her backline mates will have big shoes to fill as four-year starter and UW’s 2012 defensive player of the year Lindsey Johnson is now gone.
Wilkins is looking at a host of players to help contribute on the defensive side of the pitch this season and is not too concerned with the loss of Johnson.
“Morgan Taylor has come in and done a good job and Schwarz has come in as a true freshman and has been able to [help on defense,]” Wilkins said. “With the fact that Brianna Stelzer has to carry the load in the spring last year really has elevated her game too, so I think that experience in the spring has really helped everybody.”
Between the posts, Wisconsin will bring back redshirt junior Genevieve Richard who started to see the field last year as she split time with senior goalkeeper Lauren Gunderson during the end of the season.
It was Richard who manned the woodwork against UCLA in Wisconsin’s first round of the NCAAs and believes she will benefit from knowing she is the outright starter going into this season but still remains focused.
“Preparation-wise [knowing I am the starter] just helps me to be a little bit more ready and mentally I’m a little more prepared,” Richard said. “Overall, at the end of the day, if I am given the opportunity, I’m just going to take it and try to do my best to help out the team. It’s nice but at the same time I have to stay focused on each and every game as if I didn’t have a next one.”
Wilkins is not undervaluing the experience her Canadian net minder gained in the postseason last year and can already see the impact some game action has had on Richard.
“I think in college, goalkeeper experience is a huge thing, and I think her experience in the later part of the season last year has helped her come into the game. I think just decision making in the games has made her more confident. You can tell she’s a little bit more calmer, which is really what you from your goalkeeper.”