Young. Talented. Aggressive. Developing. These words have a single common denominator: Wisconsin men’s soccer.

Despite missing the NCAA tournament (the bracket was released Monday night), the Badgers have a bright future to look forward to as the wounds of another season cut too short slowly begin to heal.

A team predicted to finish dead last in the Big Ten in the preseason coaches’ poll, Wisconsin finished out a hard fought campaign to finish No. 3 in their conference. Players and coaches may have a hard time appreciating the positives right now, but this year proved that the UW men’s soccer team is back to being a contender and has regained its status as one of the top programs in the Big Ten.

Finishing out the year at 10-8-2, Wisconsin showed tremendous improvement from last year’s four-win rebuilding campaign. In just their second year under head coach John Trask, the Badgers proved that a still youthful team has not only taken their skills to a new level on the field, but that they are growing into a cohesive unit that could soon have them hoisting a Big Ten title trophy. So while it’s nice to reflect on the team’s achievements this season, Wisconsin soccer fans should already be salivating at what’s to come.

Friday’s loss to Penn State in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament marked the end of the college careers of forward Josh Thiermann, defender Colin Mani and key reserve defender Arnel Zahirovic, but the Badgers will retain nine of their 11 regular starters next season. Trask also returns four of his top five scorers for 2012 along with a host of younger players whose gametime experience doesn’t reflect their underclassmen status.

The key to the Badgers’ success next year is junior midfielder Tomislav Zadro, who, in his first year in Madison, led the squad with 20 points, showing his ability to spread the ball and score with six goals and eight assists. Regularly jumpstarting the UW offense all season with bending kicks and precise passes, the Canada native was named an All-Big Ten selection at the end of the year and looks to be in for a career year as a senior. Zadro showed the ridiculous numbers he can put up as a freshman at Illinois Central College in 2009 – 14 goals and 14 assists in 19 games – and should turn into an even more prolific scorer as he grows more comfortable with his teammates.

Arguably the second-biggest weapon for the Badgers in their 2012 campaign will be freshman defender A.J. Cochran. A true freshman who coaches praised all year as one of UW’s best players, Cochran didn’t blow up the stat box with five points on the year, but still looks to have a greater upside than anyone else on the team. An incredibly aggressive defender who displayed all year that he wasn’t afraid to use his 6-foot-3, 195-pound frame to shut down the Big Ten’s most dynamic offenses, Cochran will anchor Wisconsin’s defense next year. After starting 18 games in his first year, Cochran was unanimously selected to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team and is capable of becoming one of the conference’s most feared defenders as a sophomore.

Helping Zadro on the offensive end will be forward Chris Prince and midfielder/forward Nick Janus, two players who showed major development in their sophomore campaigns. Prince and Janus, with four and three goals on the year respectively, offer a threatening duo of size, speed and aggressiveness. Prince, a speedier forward with great ball skills, will likely be one of the Badgers’ top scorers behind Zadro next season. The more physical Janus – who demonstrated his potential with an assist and a goal to hand Indiana its first loss of the year – will add yet another scoring threat to the Wisconsin midfield.

Rounding out the critical players next year will be the man protecting UW’s net in goalkeeper Max Jentsch. Jentsch surrendered an average of just 0.83 goals per contest and could often be credited with keeping the Badgers in tight games with acrobatic saves. As he continues to become more comfortable as the starting Wisconsin goalkeeper, look for him to keep even more balls out of goal as a junior next year.

From goalkeeper to defense to the midfield, the Badgers are loaded with talent in what could be a special (think Rose Bowl-esque) year for the UW men’s soccer squad. Throughout the year, coaches attributed critical mistakes to Wisconsin’s lack of experience and the fact that the team was still gaining familiarity with each other’s game, and any fan could see that growth as the season progressed.

Another year for the transfers and freshmen to build the unspoken connections on the field and an NCAA tournament berth may be a rather low bar to meet in 2012. Though the expectations will certainly be higher and Wisconsin won’t be able to draw motivation from its lack of respect by other teams, Trask could take the program back to its once dominant level, such as in 1995 when UW won a national championship.

Without another transfer miracle, Camp Randall may not be the great source of success it has been the past couple years next season, so why not follow the UW men’s soccer team? After all, this is their time to shine.

Ian is a junior majoring in journalism. What do you think of the Wisconsin soccer team’s chances to do something big next year? Can they handle the pressure? Let him know at [email protected] or tweet @imccue.

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