Lucas at Large: Badgers' approach is music to Wilkins' ears

WSCR_120906_Lam-Feist_Monica.jpg

Three years ago, the Wisconsin women's soccer team learned an invaluable lesson at the expense of getting humbled in a 6-0 loss to No. 3 ranked Stanford.

The overmatched Badgers were outshot, 30-4.

But they could take some solace in knowing that Stanford would go on to win 25 straight before finally losing to North Carolina, 1-0, in the NCAA championship game.

The Badgers could also take pride in knowing that they turned around their season after that loss and made it all the way to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament before falling to Boston College.

Not only did it mark Wisconsin's best finish in the NCAAs since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 2001, it was the program's first Sweet 16 appearance in 16 years.

UW coach Paula Wilkins was reminded of that 2009 loss at Stanford the other day while discussing the positives that came out of 2-0 loss to top-ranked UCLA in Los Angeles last Friday night.

This was a far more competitive matchup; it was night and day, really.

Fact is, the Bruins didn't take the lead until the 78th minute and the Badgers were still on the attack in the final seconds after pulling goalkeeper Lauren Gunderson and using her in the box.

Wisconsin got one last shot at tying the game, but it was blocked and the deflection set up an uncontested breakaway by UCLA's Zakiya Bywaters, who sealed the victory with an empty-net goal.

Wilkins liked the way her players responded to the challenge; she liked the effort even more after learning from Monica Lam-Feist what had been said in a postgame huddle on the field.

If the Badgers were going to lose -- to paraphrase Lam-Feist -- they would go down fighting or by "throwing it all out there'' like they had against the Bruins. That was music to Wilkins' ears.

"This team is different than any team I've had in the past years,'' Wilkins said.

That was evident in the UW's season opener, a 1-0 victory over Notre Dame, the 2010 NCAA champions. Lam-Feist's goal gave the Badgers only their second win over the Irish in series history.

The only other victory came in 1989.

"Anytime you get a result against a team that has won national championships and is a perennial top-10 team in the national scene, it's important,'' said Wilkins, who won her first opener in five years. "It gives your team some confidence and makes them believe in what they can do.''

Wilkins emphasized afterward the need "to show people that it wasn't a fluke.''

She made that same point to her players prior to facing Loyola Marymount last Sunday.

"I told them after the Friday game I thought a lot of them had come to California just to play UCLA,'' she said, "and we can't lose sight of being consistent and committed to details in the next game. By getting four goals against Loyola it showed people that we weren't just a one-trick pony.''

The Badgers won 4-2 over Loyola Marymount and improved their record to 4-1.

"The biggest thing I'm happy about is that the players are committed to each other,'' Wilkins said. "I'm really excited about the dynamic they've created -- they really have a strong commitment to defending and attacking together and that mentality is carrying through a lot of games.''

The offense has been pretty noteworthy, too.

Wisconsin has scored 16 goals through five games.

The Badgers had 27 goals in 20 games last season.

"As a coach, you sleep a little better,'' Wilkins acknowledged.

The brunt of the offense has been generated among five players: Lam-Feist (3 goals, 15 shots), Paige Adams (3 goals, 10 shots), Kinley McNicoll, Kodee Williams and McKenna Meuer (2 goals each).

"Any given day,'' Wilkins said, "one of these kids is really good.''

Have there been one or two players that the others have rallied around?

"The upperclassmen are rallying around the freshmen,'' she said, "and the freshmen are rallying around the upperclassmen. It's a mutual respect for each other. Their work rate and energy is exciting.''

That's what she hasn't seen around here in a long time, she confessed.

After falling short of the NCAA tournament last season, Wilkins pointed out, "A lot of the juniors came in and said, 'We want to make a difference' and they really put the work in to build a relationship with the younger players and you can kind of see how they all believe in each other.''

That resolve was strengthened by how the Badgers played against UCLA. "I learned we're not as far off as we think we are, in terms of being competitive with the good teams,'' Wilkins said. "UCLA gave us the standard where we need to be and it's going to help us in training.''

To this end, the next two opponents -- Illinois State and Milwaukee -- will help the Badgers fine-tune their game and raise their level of play in preparation of a rugged Big Ten schedule, beginning with the conference opener Sept. 16 at Penn State.

While the offense has been a pleasant and welcome development, take it from Wilkins that her player's commitment to "defending has really made them a dangerous team'' -- one that may be capable of playing with anybody on any given day.

ON WISCONSIN