No. 1: Montee Ball, junior running back, football
It’s easy to forget that Montee Ball wasn’t the Badgers’ featured back at the beginning of the 2011 season. Heck, more fans probably saw him as a true No. 2 than a true No. 1. To be fair, the lightning-quick James White—reigning Big Ten freshman of the year—was a pretty good bet in August.
But nobody had seen what Ball did in the offseason. Nobody had seen the transformation, the weight lost and the muscle built and the mindset hardened. By the time the Rose Bowl ended late Jan. 2, though, 14 opponents—the whole nation, really—had gotten a pretty good look.
The Wentzville, Mo. native scored touchdowns like his offensive linemen eat dinner: two, three and four helpings at a time.
He scored multiple touchdowns in every game but the Rose Bowl. He finished with 33 on the ground and 39 in total. Since scoring the game-winning touchdown against Iowa Oct. 23, 2010 (19 games), Ball has amassed 2,700 rushing yards and 54 total touchdowns. Yes, that’s 142.1 yards and 2.8 trips to the end zone per contest.
He went from being a third-string option to a Heisman finalist. He went from being a talented guy in a talented backfield to the best in the nation. He went from unknown to having a legitimate NFL future.
But that will have to wait. He’s coming back for his senior year.
No. 2: Justin Schultz, junior defenseman, men's hockey
There was arguably no Wisconsin athlete more important to his team this year than Justin Schultz was for the men’s hockey team.
As the junior defenseman went, so did the Badgers. The assistant captain was a team-leading plus-11 and was on the ice for 69 of Wisconsin’s 101 goals, 27 of its 33 power play goals and 10 of its 17 game-winning tallies on the season.
After a spectacular sophomore year he decided to come back for his junior season and again made playing college hockey look easy. He led the Badgers with 16 goals—the first time a blue liner has led Wisconsin in goal-scoring—and his 44 points paced the nation’s defensemen. In return he was a top-10 Hobey Baker finalist, WCHA Defensive Player of the Year, First Team All-WCHA and a First-Team All-American.
It’s not hard to see why Schultz’s teammates voted him the Badgers’ Most Valuable Player. He was Wisconsin’s best player, and compared to the rest of the college hockey landscape he was a man amongst boys.
No. 3: Brianna Decker, junior forward, women's hockey
Junior forward Brianna Decker won the Patty Kazmaier award this season. That’s the Heisman trophy of women’s hockey, if you aren’t familiar. The forward led the nation in goals and total points scored, and she also led the Badgers in assists.
Regardless of how you feel about Tim Tebow, he was one of the most productive players in college football history. I bring the quarterback into this not to hype him up more than he’s already been, but rather to show the comparison—from a production standpoint—between he and Decker.
Tebow won two national championships and one Heisman trophy during his four years at Florida. In addition to Decker’s aforementioned Patty Kazmaier award, she also was part of Wisconsin’s national championship team two seasons ago.
Decker was clearly one of the top Badgers this season, but don’t be surprised if she goes down as one of the all-time greats.
No. 4: Russell Wilson, senior quarterback, football
The murmurs spread before Russell Wilson even stepped on campus. A buzz grew all through fall camp. By the time they turned the lights on at Camp Randall Stadium Sept. 1, nobody knew quite what to expect, but still the crescendo continued.
Finally, that night, in a 51-17 blowout of UNLV, the North Carolina State transfer gave Badger nation a glimpse. He finished 10-13 for 255 yards and two scores and added a 46-yard TD run to his dazzling debut.
It was only the start. Wilson seemingly absorbed UW’s playbook and then made throwing the record book out the window look just as easy. The one-year damage: 3,175 yards, 33 TDs, four INTs and a 72.8 percent completion rate.
Wilson made UW so dangerous that a Rose Bowl appearance felt like a consolation. From the days he spent going through his progressions in the dark at Camp Randall to the nights he spent in the exact same spot, illuminated for the entire country to see, Wilson brought RussellMania to Madison like nobody could have expected.
No. 5: Mark Zengerle, sophomore forward, men's hockey
In his freshman season, Mark Zengerle amassed just five goals in 41 games for the Wisconsin men’s hockey team. It only took the sophomore forward 11 games to match that goal output this season as he took his game to new heights in 2011-2012.
Zengerle led the Badgers and was tied for seventh nationally in points with 50 (13 goals, 37 assists). His 37 assists were also the third most in the country, and he was tied for second overall in total points by a sophomore. Zengerle also became just the fourth Badger ever to record at least 30 assists in his first two seasons.
The Rochester, N.Y., native put together an impressive run down the stretch in 2012, as he scored nine points over a season-high four-game winning streak, which included wins over Denver and archrival Minnesota.
After the season, Zengerle was named to both the All-WCHA Third team as well as the WCHA All-Academic team.
Honorable mention: Ryan Evans, junior forward, men's basketball
Yes, Jordan Taylor was returning for his senior year. And yes, the guard was expected to have another All-American season and lead the Wisconsin men’s basketball team to a solid finish in the Big Ten and maybe even a little run in the NCAA Tournament.
But junior forward Ryan Evans? Well, he was expected to once again be the guy everyone knew had potential but for whatever reason could not translate it onto the floor.
Instead, Evans had a breakout season, starting all 36 games for the Badgers and living up to all that promise en route to season averages of 11.0 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game.
With Taylor struggling at times to recapture the magic he had in his 2010-’11 junior campaign, it was Evans who plugged the gap, finishing in double digits in 14 of the Badgers’ final 15 games.
During that stretch, Evans notched his first two double-doubles when UW most needed them. A 17-point, 11-rebound effort against Minnesota and 10-point, 10-rebound game at Ohio State played major roles in two of the Badgers’ biggest wins of the season.
After coming into the season as a player Wisconsin hoped to get production from, Evans will head into his senior season as a player the Badgers will count on.