The Wisconsin women’s soccer team (3-4-1 Big Ten, 10-5-1 overall) faced off against Northwestern (0-8-0, 4-10-2) Friday night. It was a special night for the Badgers, who celebrated senior night for seven seniors.
“There’s always an emotional component to that,” said head coach Paula Wilkins. “Today was definitely about the seniors, but it was a little bit more about getting our feet back underneath us. I told the team before the game that these are the recruits that bought into me. It was my first recruiting class [at Wisconsin], and it was important for me to see them have ownership of the program and I think the way they played tonight showed that.”
The Badgers got on the board first as sophomore forward Cara Walls received a flip-throw from senior defender Lindsey Johnson near the right post and deflected the ball past Northwestern freshman goalkeeper Rachel Bergman.
“I think the confidence that [Cara] has and what she’s doing is really important for us. We need her to step into that role,” Wilkins said of Walls' success. “I thought in the first half she was great holding the ball up, not even just scoring goals, and I think that made a difference for us defensively.”
Wisconsin continued to pressure the Wildcat defense as it controlled possession. Walls struck again 14 minutes after her first goal, heading a ball off the foot of freshman midfielder Kinley McNicoll past the extended arms of Bergman.
Walls noted the importance of maintaining possession throughout the match.
“Moving to get around the ball and moving to battle and keep the ball on punts and goal kicks was key," she said.
Going into the half with a two-goal lead was comfortable but not permanent in Wilkins' eyes.
“We wanted to play a little bit more direct and keep the ball with our forwards," Wilkins said. "We knew [the Wildcats] were going to put more pressure on us and go for it. They put some more numbers forward, which is what you expect from them. We wanted to find support underneath so we could spread [Northwestern] out.”
Despite a very evenly matched second half, the Wildcats slimmed Wisconsin’s lead in the 72nd minute as junior forward Bo Podkopacz netted a goal.
“I don’t like to give up the restart goal,” said Wilkins. “I wanted them to remember that we had a two-goal lead there, and that you can’t take your foot off the pedal.”
Despite a late goal by the Wildcats, Wisconsin fended off any last-minute surges by Northwestern and prevailed with a 2-1 victory.
“We were able to keep track of their forwards, and they weren’t really able to penetrate a lot,” said Johnson of UW’s defensive play. “We worked really hard I think. That was the biggest difference tonight.”
Wisconsin completed its set of weekend home matches as it welcomed conference foe Illinois (4-3-1, 7-6-2) on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon.
The match proved to be back and forth for the bulk of the first half with Wisconsin accumulating the majority of the scoring chances. But with just less than four minutes left in the first half, the Illini managed to salvage a goal to take a 1-0 lead heading into halftime.
“We wanted to stick with the details,” said Wilkins of her team’s second-half-game plan. “We thought that we could affect the game a little bit by getting out wide. We needed our forwards to hold up the ball. I thought we gave up that goal at the end of the half because we didn’t hold onto the ball, and our forwards need to do a better job.”
The Badgers did just that as they pressured the Illini defense for numerous scoring opportunities in the second half. Illinois goalkeeper senior Steph Panozzo fended off the Badgers until the 82nd minute, when Holmes tallied her second goal of the season to tie the match at one a piece.
Time winded down and UW entered overtime for the fifth time this year. The Badgers continued their explosive play in the first overtime period, sending five shots on goal.
As the Badgers carried their pressure into the second overtime period, it was just a matter of seconds before Walls blasted a goal over the outstretched arms of the Illini goalkeeper, finalizing a dramatic comeback win for Wisconsin.
“Credit to Cara. She was fantastic in the overtime,” Wilkins said. “You could tell she was feeling it and going to take every shot. When a goal scorer gets like that, you just let them have it.
“I was most impressed with these guys in overtime, especially when we had to face the wind in the first half of the overtime. I had great respect for our team because a lot of them put in a lot of minutes in two games [this weekend].”
Wilkins emphasized the importance of stealing three points from Illinois in the Big Ten conference standings.
“Every point matters, and to get three instead of one—to get three instead of zero—is fantastic," she said. "We have three games left and we can get nine more points, and that’s going to be the focus for us moving forward. We’ve got to use this as a momentum builder.”