Guided by first-year head coach Kelly Sheffield, the Wisconsin Badgers volleyball team captivated the University of Wisconsin campus as the team danced its way through the NCAA Tournament to the National Championship game.
Before falling to fellow Big Ten foe Penn State in the final, the Badgers earned the 12th overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and hosted NCAA first and second rounds at the UW Field House. After defeating UW-Milwaukee in the first round, the Badgers advanced past California to move on to the NCAA Regionals in Champaign, Illinois.
In Illinois, the Badgers continued their run, taking down Florida State in the Sweet Sixteen, three sets to one. The following day, another Big Ten opponent, Purdue, was all that stood in the way of the Badgers and their second trip to the Final Four in program history.
After a thrilling four sets against Purdue, the Badgers emerged victorious and advanced to the Final Four in Seattle, where they took on Texas, the volleyball powerhouse and number one overall seed.
The Badgers came into the national semifinal as heavy underdogs against the Longhorns. But another gritty performance from UW gave the Badgers their first win over a No. 1 ranked opponent and put Wisconsin into the national championship against Penn State. As a 12 seed, the Badgers became the lowest seed ever to reach the national championship game.
Although Wisconsin fell to Penn State in the final contest, the Badgers have much to look forward to in the 2014 season. Returning this season is Lauren Carlini, the former Gatorade National Player of the Year and Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2013. Six starters from the 2013 squad will also return.
With Big Ten opponents such as Penn State, Purdue and Nebraska on the home conference schedule — and the Badgers looking to grow on their success from last season — the UW volleyball team should be one of the hottest tickets in Madison this year.
Much like the volleyball team, the Wisconsin men’s soccer team had their own thrilling run of success in 2013. Finishing the regular season 13-4-2 (4-2 Big Ten), the Badgers earned their first NCAA Tournament berth in 18 years. And to sweeten the deal for UW, the Badgers hosted their first round game at its home venue, the McClimon Complex, against in-state rival UW-Milwaukee. The Badgers entered the NCAA Tournament with the nation’s longest home winning streak at 13 games.
Wisconsin extended its home winning streak to 14 games with a close 1-0 victory over the Panthers. The win advanced the Badgers into the NCAA second round to face third-seeded Notre Dame, which emerged victorious.
A.J. Cochran, the 2013 Big Ten Defender of the Year and 2012 All-Big Ten First Team selection, was the 16th overall pick of the 2014 MLS SuperDraft and is with the Houston Dynamo. Cochran anchored the Badgers defense in 2013 and helped guide the Badgers to seven shutouts during the season.
Wisconsin will have a tough schedule in 2014, as they face 12 teams that participated in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. The home schedule includes four games against teams from the NCAA Tournament last season, including a game against Indiana. Last season, one of the program’s most memorable wins came at home against Indiana, as the Badgers scored four times in the final 25 minutes to defeat the Big Ten champion Hoosiers 4-3.
Last season the Badgers started the season hot with just one loss in the first 10 games of the season, looking like a team on the brink of success under head coach Paula Wilkins. Then, Wisconsin went on to lose five of the last seven games a year ago, falling just short of making the NCAA tournament field.
However, having lost just one of the starting 11 from a year ago, this could very well be the year for Wisconsin to make a run at a Big Ten title and the first NCAA tournament berth since 2012. Under Wilkins, who previously filled the head coaching role at Penn State—a national powerhouse in women’s soccer—Wisconsin has made the NCAA tournament three times in her seven years at the helm.
Although UW has yet to win a Big Ten title under Wilkins, who won six in her six years as head coach at PSU, Wisconsin has a key group of returning players that could pay big dividends by season’s end. First and foremost, the Badgers return their only ever Big Ten Freshman of the Year in sophomore to-be Rose Lavelle. Lavelle tallied six goals and seven assists in her first campaign a season ago, good enough for third on the team with her 19 total points. The Badgers have their top two scorers back up front as well in Cara Walls and Kinley McNicoll. Walls, a fearsome finisher, notched a team-high 10 goals for the Badgers last season. Alongside McNicoll who had a team-best 13 assists, Wisconsin’s play in the offensive third of the field should be a key strength.
Penn State is always a force to be reckoned with but the Nittany Lions are not infallible, as their streak of 15 straight Big Ten titles was snapped last season. With almost everyone back from last year’s squad, a finish outside of the top three for Wisconsin would be a disappointment.
In terms of the standards for Wisconsin cross-country, last season would be classified as a disappointment. After winning 14 straight Big Ten Titles the Badgers, a year removed from the National Championship, finished a distant third in the conference race after having to deal with the losses of key frontrunners Mohammed Ahmed, Maverick Darling and Reed Connor.
But all things considered, despite the losses of three of the better runners that head coach Mick Byrne has seen in his then five years at the helm, his UW squad fared quite well following the string of Big Ten titles being snapped. Twelve days after the Big Tens, Wisconsin again advanced through the Great Lakes Regional and then finished ninth at the NCAA Championships in Terre Haute, Indiana.
This year the weight will be placed on several younger and battle untested runners, the key competitors of the bunch being Michael Van Voorhis and Malachy Schrobilgen who finished seventh and ninth respectively at the Great Lakes Regional a season ago to help Wisconsin qualify for its NCAA record 42nd straight NCAA Championships. Despite lacking the likes of an Olympian such as Ahmed, don’t expect Wisconsin to be too far off the pace in the conference and nationally as the Badgers look to begin a new string of conference titles.
Wisconsin will host a total of four meets this season at its recently renovated Zimmer Course at University Ridge, with two high profile meets in the Wisconsin adidas Invitational and the Great Lakes Regional for the second straight year.