Elan Koenig has seen a lot during his five year career at Wisconsin.
From his first season — when the Badgers won three games — to a historic Big Ten championship in 2017, the redshirt senior defender thought he had been through it all.
Then, two weeks before a season when he was going to be counted on as a leader on the field after eight seniors graduated, Koenig tore his ACL, messing up the defensive plans and on field leadership.
“It was a little difficult,” Koenig said. “I ended up missing most of preseason because I had surgery and showed up late, so I didn’t really get to have that first week experience with a lot of the younger guys.”
Despite the fact Koenig couldn’t lead from the field, he was a fixture from UW’s bench, yelling instructions or encouragement to his teammates like he was another coach.
“It’s hard for me to just sit on the bench and keep quiet. We had a lineup with guys that hadn’t had [game] experience, so even during games if I can’t be on the field, I tried to lead from the bench,” Koenig said.
After a slow start to the season, Wisconsin came alive during Big Ten play and the Badgers won the most conference games in school history, finishing with a 10-6-2 record and just missing out on a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Now, with those inexperienced attacking players gaining crucial experience and continuity in the back and center of midfield, expectations for the UW soccer team are understandably lofty.
“The expectation for us is to win a Big Ten championship,” Koenig said.
Senior midfielders Mitch Guitar and Noah Leibold return to their roles in the engine of the midfield. Senior midfielder Duncan Storey is joined by flashy junior midfielder Alex Alfaro, who scored two goals and created many offensive opportunities from the right wing.
With Koenig’s return, the defense has what head coach John Trask described as the most experienced back line in his ten years coaching because five defenders are starters. Led by senior defender Robin Oloffson and senior goalkeeper Dean Cowdroy, Wisconsin’s defense saw key contributions from then-sophomores Ben Leas and Patrick Yim, who stepped up in Koenig’s absence to earn seven shutouts last season.
UW’s freshman class featured some breakout stars. Oloffson’s center defensive partner, Zach Klancnick, earned All-Big Ten freshman team honors, but the duo who stole the headlines was forwards Noah Melick and Andrew Akindele. Melick tallied a team-leading six goals while Akindele had four goals and four assists as the pair earned All-Big Ten freshman team honors and helped turn a potential rebuilding season into a great campaign.
“Sometimes you get worried that when you lose a big group of seniors that had such a big impact that you’ll take a step back. But the younger guys stepped up and proved we’re not a program that is about one senior class,” Koenig said.
After the big freshman seasons across the team, there’s always a possibility of teams figuring out their game play or a step back because of expectations; however, Trask has stressed not becoming complacent to the team.
“The goal with all the young players who had some success is that they come back hungrier for more,” Trask said.
With the return of that successful core and eye-catching young players, Trask believes the team can improve on its second place finish last year in the Big Ten. Wisconsin’s quest for the title takes them through maybe the “best soccer conference in the country,” according to Koenig — and the rankings back him up. The Badgers will face the defending champion and No. 1 Maryland Terrapins. Three other teams — Indiana, Michigan State and Michigan — are ranked in the preseason polls, but Wisconsin is just outside, and last season it beat Maryland, Michigan State and Michigan, which gives the current team a lot of motivation to show it belongs in the title race.
“We’ve proven to ourselves that we need to be in that conversation every year and we deserve the respect of being in that conversation,” Koenig said.
Recent results back up Koenig’s confidence. The Badgers have rattled off three straight 10-win seasons and John Trask agrees the winning culture of the program is in a “good place.”
“Knowing the competition for playing time has gotten tougher and that we have a better winning mentality in the program is really exciting,” Trask said.
Not only is Wisconsin looking to earn its respect across the Big Ten, but even on its own campus. Koenig wants to ensure the success of the Badgers’ soccer program isn’t “overlooked” compared to the usual bellwethers of the football team, men’s basketball team, volleyball team and women’s soccer team who are “always good.”
“We want everyone to know not only as teams in the Big Ten but also in our own athletic department that we should be respected as one of the best,” Koenig said.
Koenig’s drive to continue the team’s legacy was shaped by the disappointment of his injury. Although he wasn’t on the field for that successful season, Wisconsin’s coaches encouraged him to step up and find a role as a leader in the locker room. Koenig said rehab was “long and horrible,” but the time off the field helped him find his place as a leader.
Since he wasn’t able to travel with the first team, Koenig got to hang out with some of the younger guys who might’ve been struggling during their first season or also out with an injury. Thoughts of hoisting the Big Ten trophy again or the buzz of the locker room after big wins helped motivate Koenig during his recovery, and sharing his experiences with the other players, along with being vocal in team huddles or during games, he became a better leader.
Now with the high expectations and excitement of being able to compete for Wisconsin for the first time in 18 months, Koenig is looking forward to the season and keep the program heading in the right direction.
“It’s just another opportunity to get a ring, win some trophies, and leave a legacy for the young guys and, as a senior class as a whole, leaving our impact on the program,” Koenig said.
The Badgers kick off the season at McClimon August 30 against the UC Davis Aggies at 7 p.m.