For the third time in four years, the University of Wisconsin women’s soccer team has made the field of 64 in the NCAA tournament, earning an at-large bid Monday.
Wisconsin (12-7-1, 5-5-1 Big Ten) will travel to Los Angeles this weekend where they will take on No. 2 UCLA (15-2-2, 8-2-1 Pac-12) Saturday.
Entering the NCAA tournament selection process, UW was considered a bubble team, not a sure bet of making the Big Dance.
Senior defender/midfielder and team captain Joana Bielefeld said the team was together waiting to hear if they had made the tournament and the entire team was ecstatic to find out its fate.
“We knew that we were kind of on the edge there,” Bielefeld said. “They put [the selection show] on the big screen. So we were all watching as all of the teams came up, and UCLA came up, and all of a sudden our name came up next to them and we all just jumped up and started screaming. We are pretty excited to be given this second chance for another game and hopefully more beyond that.”
It looked as though UW would have a tough time making the NCAA tournament just a month ago, but the team went on to win five of its last six games of the regular season.
The Badgers will be meeting the Bruins for the second time this season, after losing in their first matchup 2-0 at Los Angeles’ Drake Stadium.
Sophomore forward and Wisconsin leading scorer Cara Walls said Wisconsin learned from its earlier game with UCLA and will put that experience to use while getting ready for the Bruins the second time around.
“Obviously they have really good players,” Walls said. “They have one player that is kind of the key of their offense that is Zakiya Bywaters. She’s a really good player, but we know if we can stop her from getting behind our defense, that eliminates a lot of the pressure they get from offense.”
Bywaters has 13 goals on the season, including one against the Badgers in their August matchup.
The Badgers are 13-15-2 in NCAA tournament games in program history and are 3-2 in their last five games in the tournament.
Most recently, in 2010, Wisconsin won their first round game against UW-Milwaukee before losing to Marquette in a shootout in the second round.
The Badgers’ NCAA tournament bid is the first in Walls’ career with Wisconsin, and the sophomore said she is glad the seniors have one more chance to take the field with this team.
“I was really excited for our team and all of our hard work,” Walls said. “I am really excited for our seniors. We have a really good group of seniors, and I am really proud that we were able to make it so that in their final year they can go to the NCAAs.”
After finding out they will be heading to California this weekend, Bielefeld said the coaches had a very simple message for the team.
“[Head coach] Paula [Wilkins] said to us, ‘It is a new season,'” Bielefeld said. “Everybody starts over at this point. Your record doesn’t matter; who you beat or lost to doesn’t matter. Everyone knows that this could potentially be their last game. She said it’s a whole different ball game. Everyone is throwing everything out there.”
This 2012 marks the ninth tournament appearance for head coach Paula Wilkins and her third with Wisconsin. Wilkins led Penn State to two Final Four appearances while coaching the Nittany Lions.
Walls knows making the tournament is a positive moment not just for the team, but for the Wisconsin women’s soccer program as a whole.
“It is definitely a good thing,” Walls said. “We definitely want to make our program somewhere that there is always competing and is one of the top programs in the country. So it’s exciting and I think it’s something that we should come to expect of ourselves. This just kind of sets the standard for the program.”
Wisconsin will have a full week of practice to avenge its early season loss to UCLA, but Bielefeld says the team will start preparing for the game right away.
“Preparation starts immediately, especially mentally,” Bielefeld said. “We knew it was not a for sure thing and that we were on the brink. So I think that everybody is pretty excited and pumped. We will start practicing tomorrow right away and preparing for the game.”