Nov. 1, 2011
By MIKE LUCAS
John Trask had a telling impact on Josh Thiermann the very first time the UW men's soccer coach told the Notre Dame transfer about his big picture goals for the Badgers.
"I just got the impression right away that he was here to win games,'' said Thiermann, a Stoughton native, "that he was here to change the program.''
Trask told Thiermann to forget about what happened here in the past.
"He talked about moving forward and making a name for Wisconsin -- a powerhouse that would be known through the entire nation,'' Thiermann said.
"We definitely haven't done that yet, but I definitely feel like we've made progress. And it's well on its way to happening and becoming true.''
For the first time since 1995, the Badgers opened their Big Ten season with three consecutive victories -- over Indiana, Michigan and Michigan State -- before losing Sunday at Northwestern.
"We're maturing, there's no question,'' said Trask, the second-year head coach. "The guys that played a majority of the minutes last year are sophomores and they've been hardened.''
Based on his own timetable, Trask admitted that "we're a little bit further along'' than he expected although the 7-6-2 overall record might not fairly or accurately reflect the improvement.
Then, again, the Badgers were 4-13-3 last season.
"So obviously we're a better team,'' Trask said. "We probably should be 8-5-2 and if we were then we'd be feeling pretty confident that we were in the NCAA tournament, which is our goal.
"You might not make a bunch of noise, but you want to at least get there and get your guys' feet wet in the environment because everything changes when you get to the NCAA tournament.''
Thiermann can vouch for that; especially after going three-straight years at Notre Dame.
"It means everything in the world,'' he said. "I'd like to finish out my career by going there every year I've been playing. But, more importantly, it's not about me individually.
"It's about this team and where this program is heading and it would be unbelievable to go from the record that we had last year to making the NCAA tournament this year.''
Thiermann was recruited by the UW but opted for the Irish because there was more certainty about their commitment. He enjoyed the people and learned a great deal from the coaching staff.
"But I didn't feel like I fit in with the team,'' he said. "Wisconsin was an opportunity to start over again. I wanted to come home, be closer to family and finish out wearing the red.''
Chemistry is not an issue with these Badgers. "The guys and their personalities mesh,'' said Thiermann, the team's fourth-leading scorer and captain. "We have a trust in each other.''
Trask, much to his delight, has seen the same things.
"On a big campus, the most difficult thing to teach or get is team camaraderie,'' Trask said. "But these guys love to be around each other, both on and off the field.
"I'm not saying the team that I inherited wasn't like that, but it's noticeable that this team is. Through thick and thin, they're sticking together. That's a reason why we're more successful this year.''
There's one facet of his player's make-up that he's still working on, though.
"Any time we've played against a good team, we've been solid,'' Trask said. "We'd like to think we'd be a little bit better against the lesser quality teams.
"That's a real mark of a solid program; you've got to win the games you're suppose to win and then if you do reasonably well against the top-20 teams, you're where you want to be.''
In early October, the Badgers blanked then-No. 6 Indiana, 2-0, before losing in overtime to No. 5 Creighton, 2-1. That was viewed as somewhat of a turning point because of Creighton's experience level.
"They got the game-winner from about 35 yards out,'' Thiermann remembered. "Nobody walked away from that game with their heads held high thinking, `Yes, we almost did it.'
"Instead everyone was upset. It was like, `Damn, we should have won and we could have won.' That was a very big week tolet us know where we stood in the nation with some of these teams.''
The Badgers followed that up with quality wins over Michigan and Michigan State. "There have been a lot of good things that happened,'' Trask said. "But the glue is not quite there yet.''
Does he have the makings of an NCAA tournament-caliber team?
"I'm optimistic,'' said Trask, noting the odds are slightly in the UW's favor, for now.
"Some people might say we're still a little bit short in terms of overall experience. But I'd like to think if things go well the next couple of weeks, we're going to be good enough to get in.''
Some of his optimism stems from the fact that he has a deeper pool of players. "We're starting to really show some depth at some positions,'' Trask said. "It's a big part of Big Ten soccer.''
Tomislav Zadro leads the Badgers in scoring with four goals and seven assists.
"He really creates that rhythm for us as a team,'' Trask said. "A.J. Cochran has been outstanding and Chris Prince and Josh Thiermann have been excellent. A lot of guys have been pitching in.
"If you've got a solid central defense, someone who can punch some goals in and a decent goaltender, you've got a chance. That's where we are right now.''
Sunday's home match against Ohio State will impact the RPI and league race. "It's wide open,'' Trask said. "Indiana could win it. Ohio State could win it. We could win it. Northwestern could win it.''
Added Thiermann, "It's the sort of league race where it doesn't matter who thinks they're better, it's about who's better on that day.''
Trask sees the Badgers needing to get to 10 or 11 victories.
"You don't want to go into the Big Ten Tournament saying, `Well, if we win three in a row, we're in the NCAA's,''' he said. "Or, `Well, we need to win our first two and then we're in the Dance.'
"You don't want to leave it to that because then all bets are off.''
Campus recognition has been a by-product of the success that the Badgers have already had.
That was apparent when the players took part in UW's Homecoming parade a couple of weeks ago.
"Once you're walking and people are kind of cheering you on, it's like, `Wow, this is unbelievable,''' Thiermann said. "I know for a fact that it energized the guys.''
It marked another step -- or steps -- for Trask's program.
"It was amazing to see the outpouring of people who actually knew about men's soccer on campus,'' Trask said. "It really made the guys proud that so many in the community recognized them.
"Word is getting out.''
And the players will get the last word on their NCAA worthiness.