Newly-minted with a No. 20 ranking to conclude the regular season, the Badgers have earned the No. 3-overall seed in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament.
The high seeding is a culmination of Wisconsin’s uptick in performance, in sharp contrast to last year’s No. 7 seed. As a reward for their play, the friendly confines of McClimon will play host for the Badgers as they duke it out with the No. 6-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes Sunday at noon.
One Badger on the pitch Sunday who is sure to have chances to attack is junior forward Christopher Mueller. The forward saw his numbers increase significantly this season, improving from five goals and three assists to six goals and ten assists, with those assists feeding into the “team-first” mantra that the players have preached all season.
“The team is the first priority,” said Mueller. “Whether I have to score goals or get assists for us to win, if that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes.”
The junior was a part of the No. 7 seed Badgers last year that fell to the No. 2 seed Hoosiers 1-0 in Bloomington; however, this team is armed with a high seed and coveted home turf looking to rectify last year’s poor showing.
“We have the homefield advantage,” said Mueller. “Something that we haven’t had since I’ve been here.”
On the defensive side, sophomore Sam Brotherton has continued to thrive in the backline, with the captain anchoring an improved Badger defense all year.
“It’s been a good season, I think I’ve progressed,” said Brotherton. “But I don’t think it’s over yet.”
Not only did Brotherton record his first goal this season—beating Rutgers for a game-deciding strike on Oct. 1—but he was promptly called up to the New Zealand National Team a day later for its North American tour. Brotherton and company have seen what they’re up against just last week, as the Badgers and Buckeyes played a tightly contested 2-1 match that swung in favor of the Badgers.
“We’ve gone toe-to-toe with every single Big Ten team this year,” said Brotherton. “We feel like we can beat anyone on our day.”
The man whom Brotherton and his backline work to defend is redshirt junior goalkeeper Philipp Schilling. The German keeper has stepped into the starting role for the Badgers in his first season with team, touting an impressive five clean sheets on the season.
“We were ranked like 150th at the halftime of the season,” said Schilling. “I think we improved on and off the pitch quite a lot this season.”
That improvement was demonstrated by the Badgers’ 10 total wins this season, more than the eight that they amassed over the past two seasons combined.
“It feels great to get that recognition from the country,” Schilling said.
The junior keeper is on the cusp of dipping his toes into his first Big Ten tournament, but is prepared for the high-stakes atmosphere of post-season play.
“I’m actually looking forward to it; we don’t have any kind of playoffs in Germany,” said Schilling. “We don’t have this situation where it’s just a must-win.”
Coach Trask’s team will be out to make a statement for the program after dismal performances that have plagued Wisconsin for the past two seasons. The Badgers’ hopes for its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2013, and third since 1995, hinge on excellent showings not only in the quarterfinals Sunday, but into the semifinals and potentially the final.
If the Badgers can get past Ohio State, the team will be pitted in the semifinals against either their old foes from a year ago, the No. 2 seed Hoosiers or No. 7 seed Northwestern, which Wisconsin bested 2-1 earlier this year. Winning the conference tournament would result in an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament—with the Badgers avoiding a guessing game of whether or not they will be selected.
The Big Ten Tournament field is teeming with intrigue and talent as the No. 1 Maryland Terrapins have led the charge for the Big Ten in the rankings all year as soccer’s top dog. The aforementioned Hoosiers have been a mainstay in the top 25 all year, as well as the Michigan State Spartans who have ducked in and out of the top 25 all season. How do the trio of Badgers feel about the upcoming challenges that lie ahead on the path to Big Ten champs?
“Confident,” said Mueller.
“Excited,” said Brotherton.
“Victory,” said Schilling. “We want to win this game, then the whole tournament.”
These are not the Badgers of old; they are ready to etch their name into the minds of opposing players, coaches and fans—as well as the Wisconsin history books.