With their season-long goal of reaching the NCAA tournament in jeopardy, the Wisconsin men’s soccer team will enter their opening round game against Michigan Wednesday with their dream on the line.
Starting Wednesday, the Big Ten Tournament kicks off in Ann Arbor, Mich. The Badgers, who earned the No. 3 seed in the tournament with a 9-7-2 record overall, are set to play the hometown Michigan Wolverines, the No. 6 seed (5-13-1 overall), in the first round of the tournament.
“It’s Michigan’s home field; there is an advantage there, no question about it,” head coach John Trask said. “Having said that, it’s the Big Ten Tournament, it doesn’t matter if it was being played on Mars. Every single team will be ready to play and that includes us, and we are looking forward to a great event.”
While it appears to be a tough draw for the Badgers to play the tournament host, they actually enter familiar territory, having already defeated the Wolverines once in Ann Arbor this year.
In their second game of Big Ten play in October, the Badgers pulled out a hard fought 2-1 victory against the Wolverines despite being outshot 23-6 by the home team. Still, statistics can be deceptive, and the Badgers have managed to score goals all year with relatively little shot production.
“We feel confident that we can play with any team,” junior midfielder Tomislav Zadro said. “They may have outshot us, but we dominated in goals and that is all that matters. If we can do that again, I think we will be fine no matter how many shots they take. Many of the shots they took were from 40 yards out, and we are quite content to let them take those; it is hard to score from there.”
Should the Badgers manage to defeat the Wolverines for a second time this season, they would be faced with either the No. 2 seed Ohio State or the No. 7 seed Penn State.
Regardless, the Badgers likely need multiple wins in the Big Ten Tournament to be considered for an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament. Only one team, the winner of the Big Ten Tournament, is guaranteed a spot, and the Badgers would need to win three games in five days to come out on top.
“We need to keep winning,” Trask said. “The easiest way to [get in] would be to win the Big Ten Tournament and get into the NCAA tournament automatically. That way we wouldn’t have to worry about any other teams. … I don’t like to leave things to other teams.
“Having said that, to go and win the Big Ten means we have to win three games in a short period of time, which is extremely hard.”
At the beginning of the season, it would have seemed an unlikely story to say that the Badgers had a shot at the Big Ten Tournament trophy.
They entered the season picked in the coach’s poll to finish last (out of seven) in the Big Ten, but after silencing the skeptics with a solid third place finish in the conference, the Badgers believe they are legitimate title contenders.
“You have to play to your own standards,” senior forward Josh Thiermann said. “It is important to go into the game with the mindset that, if you don’t go into the game and impose your will on the other team, that you could lose and we can’t afford to do that.”
Still, their path to the Big Ten Tournament final is not an easy one.
The most likely scenario to winning the tournament includes facing the two Big Ten teams that defeated them in the regular season, Northwestern and Ohio State, which are seeded No. 1 and No. 2 in the tournament, respectively.
Northwestern, which has a first-round bye in the tournament, does not play until Friday, when they face the winner of the Indiana vs. Michigan State game. The Wildcats were the only team in the Big Ten to go undefeated this year, and in a matchup in Evanston, Ill., earlier this year, the Badgers were unable to score and ultimately lost to Northwestern, 1-0.
With so little season left for the Badgers, who are now one loss away from the end to their season, each game takes on new meaning. This is especially true for the seniors on the squad, for many of whom this is their last competitive season.
“If we lose, it could all be over,” Thiermann said. “You want to go into every game with the mindset that you’re gonna win it. With that said, being a senior, knowing that you’re just on that verge [of the NCAA tournament], I’m sure there will be that little bit more intensity, urgency from us to keep the season alive.”