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Sunday, January 29, 2023
Freshman forward Andrew Akindele and the rest of the Badgers were held scoreless in their 1-0 semifinal loss against Michigan. 

Freshman forward Andrew Akindele and the rest of the Badgers were held scoreless in their 1-0 semifinal loss against Michigan. 

After surprise midseason run, young and talented Badger squad hopes to make waves in postseason tournaments

“We’re getting better every game,” Isaac Schlenker said. “We’re just trying to keep this momentum going and keep improving as a team because we are.”

Wisconsin soccer’s senior captain said that after Wisconsin’s lone draw in its last nine games. During that stretch, the Badgers (6-2-0 Big Ten, 9-5-2 overall) have caught fire, going 7-1-1 and firing up into second place in the Big Ten.

The young team struggled in their first few games before tearing off this impressive streak. Head Coach John Trask said that nothing has really changed, aside from an increase in experience and confidence.

In conference play, the Badgers won a school-record six games. Five of those wins came in overtime, a situation that Wisconsin has become comfortable in.

“Belief and confidence is massive in any sports team,” Trask said. “Our guys feel like when they go into overtime, they own overtime.”

Wisconsin has had new heroes emerge during those overtime periods, with the last three overtime winners coming from freshmen. Noah Melick scored back-to-back game-winners against Michigan and Northwestern while his strike partner Andrew Akindele scored the winner against Ohio State.

Melick knew that the freshman attackers had a big legacy to keep up after the departure of Wisconsin’s attacking “law firm” of Chris Mueller, Tom Barlow, Mike Catalano and Mark Segbers, but the pair has done well in their first season leading the line.

“We knew coming into the season we had big shoes to fill but we’re taking advantage of it,” Melick said. “People doubted us, but we’re rising to the top right now and we’re not done.”

While those two have blossomed into their roles — both are tied for the team lead with four goals — Trask highlighted the help that upperclassmen, particularly senior Isaac Schlenker, have provided in preparing physically and mentally for games.

“Isaac is really the leader of the team and takes great pride in it. The way he’s gone about not just welcoming but encouraging and letting the young guys know how successful they can be... that’s just invaluable,” Trask said.

Schlenker has been invaluable on the field for Wisconsin too, scoring three goals and leading the team on defense and the attack. The captain started the season playing outside back but has been able to push higher up the field as a right midfielder, thanks to the development of sophomore defender Ben Leas.

Leas has been a part of a backline that is still been growing into its roles. Defender Elan Koenig started all the games last season for Wisconsin and was expected to have a huge role this season, but after suffering an ACL injury that put him out for the season, younger defenders like sophomore Patrick Yim, Zach Klancnik and Leas have joined with junior Robin Olofsson to create a solid back four.

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Playing in front of junior goalkeeper Dean Cowdroy — a transfer from Division II Lander University, who won two Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week awards — the group has posted seven clean sheets and have been crucial in Wisconsin’s run.

“They’ve really taken pride in the fact that the best you can do is get a shutout,” Trask said. If we can shutout the other team and give our young attackers a chance, that’s been our recipe.”

Strong defense and timely goal-scoring earned Wisconsin the second seed in the Big Ten tournament. UW hosts seventh-seed Rutgers (2-6-0, 4-12-1) Sunday in a rematch of high-scoring affair that ended in a 4-2 Badgers win.

In that game, Rutgers junior forward Jordan Hall was the best player on the field, scoring two goals in rainy conditions. The Englishman has scored 13 goals this season — tied for fifth-best in the NCAA. Junior forward Brian Hawkins, a former Big Ten All-Freshman player, is finally back and healthy, and it will be a big test for UW as they look to win back-to-back Big Ten Tournaments.

Trask is excited to have another home game this season, and if the team can reach the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season, there might be another home game down the line. But right now, the Badgers aren’t looking ahead at further glory.

“This truly is a ‘Badger’ team in their mentality, and we just want to keep this thing going as long as possible,” Trask said.

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