As the UW men’s soccer team approaches conference play in the Big Ten, it will do so with its best start since 1994, the year before it won the national championship. With a record of 6-1-1, the Badgers have put themselves in a prime position to make a run at the conference title.
The early success displayed so far by this year’s team is largely attributable to a strong nucleus of seniors who set the tone on and off the field. Led by tri-captains Valentine Anozie, Scott Repa and Mike Congiu, as well as returning seniors Moriba Baker, Dominic DaPra and Aaron Lauber, the Badgers combine veteran experience with talented youth in hopes of putting together a contending team.
“The senior leadership has probably been the biggest factor,” DaPra said. “The rest of the team is responding real well to it.”
Congiu agrees with DaPra’s assessment.
“The younger guys are beginning to learn the ropes and have more of an impact in the games,” Congiu said. “And the seniors are doing what’s expected of them.”
In addition to the encouraging leadership exhibited by the upperclassmen, renewed team chemistry has also played a part in the Badgers’ early prosperity. Many UW players noted the importance of playing well as a team rather than as individuals, not worrying about other people’s jobs and trusting the other 10 guys on the field.
“Everyone on this team is willing to work hard for each other,” Repa said. “We’re starting to play with confidence.”
“I think we have a better team this year because of our ability to gel together,” Lauber said. “We’re really starting to turn it on.”
Head coach Kalekeni Banda, in his fifth season, also deserves credit for the Badgers’ impressive record thusfar. The positive atmosphere he has created and his 20 years of coaching experience have undoubtedly played a large role in developing the potential of this year’s team.
Congiu was especially impressed with the way Banda has dealt with the younger players, allowing them to grow and mature in a favorable environment. Taking a more relaxed, laid-back approach has loosened the team quite a bit and has created more room for success.
“We’re winning because we’re more relaxed,” Baker said. “We’re just having fun out there.”
Last year’s team approached conference play with a similar record, but tapered off as the season progressed. Enhanced experience and previous momentum hope to prevent a repeat of last year, as well as to continue the unity that has gotten the Badgers off to such a fast start.
“We just have to stay positive and take it one game at a time,” Repa said. “Keep improving as a team.”
Equally important for the Badgers will be their need to stay healthy throughout the rest of the season, avoiding any major injuries. The Badgers have been without injured star and captain Anozie, and anticipate his return to elevate the team to an even higher level.
“We aren’t even close to reaching our potential yet,” said Congiu. “Getting Val back would be huge.”
DaPra also feels the team’s future success depends on the health of the team.
“If we can stay healthy, we’re going to be pretty good,” DaPra said.
Adding to the Badgers favorable outlook is that, for the first time since 1993, the Big Ten Conference Championship Tournament will take place in Madison’s McClimon Soccer Complex. Playing for the championship in front of their home crowd already excites the Badgers, and only provides more motivation to play well in the regular season.
With steaming momentum propelling them, and a potential championship on the horizon, the Badgers are charging full speed ahead into the second half of the season, which promises to be an exciting one.
“Our core of seniors realizes that this is our last shot at a championship,” Lauber said. “We’re just going to give it everything we’ve got.”