Aug. 16, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- You can understand why Wisconsin women’s soccer forward Cara Walls might be impacted by the clutch play of 23-year-old Alex Morgan, who led Team USA to a thrilling win over Canada in the semifinals of the Olympics and evolved not only into a gold medalist but a “goal’’ medalist.
Morgan, who played collegiately at Cal-Berkeley, is one of the elite goal scorers in the world. Walls took note of her success in London because she plays the same forward position and because “obviously she’s so talented and I want to do what she does -- I want to score goals.’’
Walls got off to a fast start in her first season with the Badgers by leading the team in goals (9), points (19), shooting percentage (.281) and game-winning goals (4). She was the first freshman to lead UW in goal-scoring since 2001, and her nine goals were the most by a UW freshman since 1997.
“I always tell her that she can be special,’’ said sixth-year Wisconsin coach Paula Wilkins, “and I’ve been trying to make her believe that.’’
The message is starting to resonate with the 19-year-old Walls who said Wilkins has taught her “to believe in myself and to believe in my teammates.’’
Taking it another step, Walls said Wilkins has also stressed that “things aren’t always going to go my way or the team’s way, but you have to stick with it and persevere and it will work out.’’
Words to win by -- especially since the Badgers are looking to rebound from a 10-7-3 season.
“It’s a different vibe completely,’’ Wilkins said of her team’s readiness for Friday night’s season-opener (7 p.m.) against Notre Dame at the McClimon Soccer Complex.
“The freshman have come in with a different mentality and it’s kind of ingrained into the group -- I really enjoy that -- they want to do it different and that’s a bit of a culture change that we need.’’
Walls’ transformation and development since the spring has also been noteworthy.
“Cara’s way more attached with the team in terms of her inner action and her attitude in practice; her drive in practice,’’ Wilkins said, adding, “She’s not the most vocal kid.
“But she really gets excited for training and competition. That alone helps. And that’s what I’m trying to get across to her and she has been listening and it’s made a difference.
“We were watching the Notre Dame game from last year, her first game as a freshman, and you can see there is such a difference in her presence on the field and her confidence with the ball.’’
Walls joined the Badgers after leading FC Milwaukee’s Under-18 team to a national title. Her goal-scoring prowess was in evidence as she scored four times and was awarded the “Golden Ball.’’
“I’ve kind of watched her play since she was 15,’’ Wilkins said. “She had good athleticism (as a younger player), but mostly she had a good sense around the goal; a nose around the goal.
“She scores some weird goals -- they’ll bounce off her knee -- but she scores some great goals also. She’s naturally in a position to score. That’s not typical for most players.’’
As a college freshman, Walls went through an understandable adjustment period on the field. “It was to the speed of the game,’’ Wilkins said, “and for her it was a little bit to the physicality.’’
There were some other facets to her transition as a student-athlete at Wisconsin.
“In high school, you can do what you have to do to get by in school and soccer,’’ said Walls, a two-time team captain at Wauwatosa East High School.
“We only practiced three times a week, whereas in college, school is harder and you’re training hard every day. Overall, it was hard for me to adjust.’’
You wouldn’t know that by her offensive production.
“That was good,’’ she said of her nine goals in 17 starts. “But I think I can do better, and I want to do better so we can finish in a better spot (in the Big Ten) than we did last year (fourth).’’
Walls has always looked up to her older brother, Tony, a professional soccer player with the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer. Tony Walls, a defender, was the Horizon Player of the Year as a senior at Green Bay.
“We’ve always practiced together and kicked it around,’’ Cara Walls said.
“It’s huge,’’ said Wilkins. “She watches soccer all the time; that’s never a bad thing.’’
Cara Walls also watches college football. Her cousin his UW tailback Jeff Lewis.
“Obviously, he has some really good guys ahead of him,’’ said Walls, alluding to a rotation that includes Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon. “Hopefully he will get to play more this year.’’
Walls, meanwhile, is focused on helping the soccer team play better this year.
“There’s a really good energy and everyone is excited about what we can do,’’ she said. “Our strength is when we’re all in together.
“When we pressure and defend together, when we get numbers ahead and behind the ball, that’s when we’re at our strongest -- being on the same page.’’
Wilkins believes that Paige Adams, a redshirt junior from Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, will be a positive influence on Walls’ game.
“They are the perfect complement to each other,’’ Wilkins said. “And I think it’s really going to help Cara be more of an offensive threat. They’ve started to learn each other in terms of reading where one is creating space.
“You can see a good relationship being built in terms of their movement off the ball and what they want. Paige will go the extra mile to try and get a pass to Cara because she’s confident she’s going to finish.’’
Confident is the operative word, particularly when used in conjunction with Walls’ growth.
“She just has to gain some confidence,’’ Wilkins reiterated.
That’s all part of the belief system that Wilkins has been driving home and teaching and it all starts with believing in yourself. Walls has gotten the message.
“Every year playing with different girls and different coaches,’’ Wall said, “I learn more about myself and about the game and what I need to do to be successful.’’
She learned something from watching Team USA win another gold medal in the Olympics, too.
“The main thing was just seeing how hard work can pay off,’’ Walls said. “And it just gives me motivation to go out there and work harder.’’