This weekend was not exactly a ringing endorsement of Wisconsin athletics.
The football team lost after getting outcoached in the second half, the men’s hockey team stayed true to its 2007-08 form in blowing a 2-0 lead Friday and the volleyball team that had been on a roll after a 2-0 weekend lost to a Purdue team that had dropped five in a row.
One program is playing its best at the right time of year, however.
Currently third in the Big Ten standings with a 3-1-3 record in conference play, the Wisconsin women’s soccer team is coming off one of its most successful weekends in recent memory. And it is thanks in no small part to head coach Paula Wilkins.
Now I know most of you probably think soccer is about as mind numbing as watching the Tennessee Titans try to play something that resembles a defense (59 points, really?), but hear me out.
I’ve been going to UW soccer games for the last three years, and the two I saw this weekend were the most exciting I’ve seen. Unfortunately, fewer than 400 people joined me.
The Badgers hosted No. 19 Ohio State and perennial Big Ten powerhouse Penn State, your typical “make or break” situation for their season. Entering the weekend, Wisconsin was tied with Minnesota atop the conference standings with 10 points, while Ohio State and Penn State were just behind with nine.
Friday’s game began like most of the Badgers’ games this season: with a scoreless first half. When the teams came out of the break, though, the Buckeyes took control of the game and the lead with a header goal from Tiffany Cameron in the 63rd minute. Still, Wisconsin never flinched, battling the rest of the way despite trailing arguably the best team in the Big Ten.
Wisconsin inbounded the ball with 30 seconds remaining in regulation, needing a goal to send the game into overtime. And that’s exactly what the Badgers got.
Sophomore forward Laurie Nosbusch found freshman Monica Lam-Feist, who put the ball past the OSU keeper to tie the game with 18 seconds remaining.
It was the British Columbia native’s first collegiate goal, and it set the tone for the weekend.
Although the game ended in a 1-1 tie after 110 minutes, the Badgers maintained their lead over the Buckeyes, while Penn State won in similar fashion Friday at Minnesota to take over the Big Ten lead.
With the Nittany Lions leading the conference, Sunday’s home finale meant that much more to the Badgers, and it showed. Wilkins’ squad was prepared mentally and physically, even after playing its fifth overtime game of the season.
They fought hard throughout, and despite falling behind 3-1 late in the second half, continued to battle. And just two minutes after PSU went up by two, the Badgers got a crucial penalty kick.
Sophomore Erin Jacobsen converted and cut the lead to one.
The game remained 3-2 until the 81st minute, when Nosbusch headed in the game-tying goal off an assist from Lam-Feist and fellow freshman Paige Adams.
Much like Friday night, however, Sunday’s game ended in a draw after 110 minutes, leaving the Badgers one point behind both the Nittany Lions and the Buckeyes.
Still, the weekend is a significant one in the program’s history. In Wilkins’ first two years at Wisconsin, her team went a combined 1-3 against OSU and PSU, including back-to-back losses last season by scores of 4-0 and 3-0, respectively.
To battle back for ties against the conferences two top teams means a lot to Wilkins.
“To show that courage to come back and keep battling is something that we’ve talked about in the program,” she said Friday night. “I’m happy to say it showed up tonight.”
For Wilkins, her team’s play — especially the goal in the final seconds Friday — showed the progress they’ve made not only since her arrival in 2007 but also from the beginning of the 2009 season.
“I think a year ago — even a couple games ago — we wouldn’t have that,” Wilkins said. “Especially with these young players on the field, I think they’ve done a great job to rise to the challenge.”
Of course, Wilkins left out the part about how she has single-handedly turned around the women’s soccer program in her three years at Wisconsin.
Although Wisconsin had success reaching the NCAA Tournament in 2004 and 2005, the Badgers had a disappointing season in 2006, finishing 7-8-3. And while Wilkins was just 6-11-1 in her first year as head coach, Wisconsin improved last season to 9-9-1, though they still missed the Big Ten Tournament for the third straight year.
This year, however, Wilkins has shown that the program is headed in the right direction. The team is just 7-5-3, but they’ve played a very ambitious schedule with a pair of losses at top-five opponents and have lost just once in conference play, on an overtime PK.
More importantly, though, the Badgers continue to be built around young talent, thanks to Wilkins’ impressive ability to recruit high-quality athletes. This year’s squad currently features a starting lineup of five sophomores, four freshmen, one junior and one senior.
With so much young talent playing so well at this point in the season, Wisconsin is primed to be a successful program for years to come under the direction of Wilkins. In fact, it would be surprising if she did not build the program to the level of Penn State’s, which she guided to national prominence for several years before coming to Wisconsin.
“[This weekend] proves that we deserve to compete with the people in the top of the Big Ten,” Wilkins said. “I think we’re building confidence every day.”
Now if Wilkins can figure out how to get more than 396 fans to her team’s biggest game of the year, the sky is the limit for this Wisconsin women’s soccer program.
Jordan is a senior majoring in journalism and political science. Don’t care about soccer? Let him know at [email protected] and he’ll tell you why you should.