Any team can win games, but oftentimes, the true measure of a group is how it responds when it loses and adversity arises. The Wisconsin women’s soccer team embodied the former situation earlier this season, as it was 7-1-2 overall and 2-0-1 in Big Ten play. Things were looking up and the Badgers appeared as if they might steal the show in the Big Ten. But after only a few unlucky bounces, Wisconsin began to fall from grace.
In the fourth game of the Big Ten season, Wisconsin battled for 90 minutes against 15-time defending Big Ten champion Penn State, but found itself on the wrong side of a 2-1 game. It was only one loss, and the Badgers rebounded to defeat Ohio State in the next game in overtime.
The Penn State loss seemed to be a mere setback in what was going to be an otherwise strong season. However, after the Ohio State match, the proverbial wheels began to fall off the bus.
“It’s been a frustrating end to our second half of our Big Ten season. I think that’s been the thing that’s kind of played out in my mind. It’s been a fine line. Our two overtime losses – one actually being one second left on the clock and losing so late to Minnesota – it just seems like things haven’t necessarily fallen our way in this last half,” assistant coach Tim Rosenfeld said.
After losing a tough 3-2 match at Illinois, Wisconsin came back home to face Big Ten-leader Nebraska for a critical game in the conference standings. Wisconsin tied the game up at one early in the first half and forced the game into two overtimes. But it was all for naught, as Nebraska scored with one second left in double overtime to win the game, leaving both the players and coaches stunned and distraught.
The Badgers would go on to win the next game against Iowa, but just six days after the Nebraska loss, heartbreak would strike again, this time against Minnesota. With only a minute and a half left in double overtime, the Golden Gophers struck for the golden goal, an all too familiar situation for sophomore midfielder Kinley McNicoll and her Badger teammates.
“I thought our team fought to the end for a lot of games. And unfortunately, two goals right at the end of a game is kind of devastating, right? It’s the hardest, pretty much, way to lose in soccer,” McNicoll said.
Wisconsin finished its regular season Saturday with a win at home against Northwestern, but since the 7-1-2 start the Badgers have gone on to lose five of their last eight, needing to win Saturday to just make the Big Ten tournament.
Seven of those eight games have come down to one goal, and as a result of only a few mistakes, Wisconsin has found itself on the losing end of those games more often than not.
“[Head coach] Paula [Wilkins] had a great saying. She goes, ‘If you’re going to run forward and can’t run back, don’t run forward.’ I think that’s what happened late in games is we’ve felt, ‘We’ve dominated this game so let’s keep pressing, pressing, pressing.’ A couple of breakdowns, next thing you know we’re walking off losers,” Rosenfeld said.
As Rosenfeld was apt to note, all he, or anyone else involved in the program for that matter, can really do is offer up excuses as to what has transpired in the second half of the conference season and why things haven’t been going the Badgers’ way.
Certainly a big part of Wisconsin’s struggles has something to do with just how young the Badgers are this year. Eighteen of the 26 players on Wisconsin’s roster are freshmen or sophomores, and the Badgers have only one starting senior. That leaves Wisconsin with a great lack of experience when it comes to playing in close games, especially those in overtime.
With only four starters out of 11 that are juniors or seniors, those late-game situations have forced the younger players to have to adapt on the fly, a valuable experience, but something that’s proved challenging.
“We’re so young and that’s the thing that we’ve got to remember is that these guys are learning off of this. And everything, every game, every event, everything that’s happened to us has been a learning situation for these guys, and we’ve got to grow from it,” Rosenfeld said. “If we don’t then we’ve lost the moment. We’ve lost the opportunity.”
Essentially what the tough sledding comes down to for the Badgers is not a lack of athletic ability, but instead mentality. Losses, especially the bitter defeats, have brought about a positive feedback cycle of sorts that has perpetuated more mental breakdowns and with it more losses.
“I do think that the biggest thing is that since those two overtime losses, we haven’t responded well to difficult situations within games,” Rosenfeld said. “We can be dominating, which we’ve done in the first 20 minutes against Indiana. All of a sudden we have one breakdown, they have a chance on goal and we’re like, ‘Oh, crap.’ And all of a sudden the mind starts working and it gets in the way of you. ‘Now what? Now what do I do? Here we go again.’ And that’s difficult.”
Although the picture of the Wisconsin season and program may appear bleak and dreary, it is hardly so. Wisconsin broke through for its win by more than one goal with the 3-0 defeat of Northwestern, and still has the entire postseason in front of it with the Big Ten tournament berth and a berth in the NCAA tournament fairly likely as well.
The Badgers have certainly faced their fair share of adversity and have had plenty of learning opportunities. Now, all that remains to be seen is how they will respond.
“The Big Ten season is long. It’s difficult; it’s challenging. You look at how close it is this year. Every game for us has been a one goal game – one goal either way. It’s something that they’ve got to learn from and grow from and I expect that they will. Our future is bright. Our future is so bright with this group. We’re so talented, so I’m excited to see what happens,” Rosenfeld said.