Catie Sessions & Wisconsin Will Hope to Return to The NCAA Tournament in 2012
ACC – Clemson
Big XII – Iowa State | Oklahoma | TCU | Texas Tech
Big East – Cincinnati | DePaul | Pittsburgh | Providence | Rutgers | Seton Hall | South Florida | St. John’s (NY) | Syracuse | UConn | Villanova
Big Ten – Indiana | Iowa | Michigan State | Minnesota | Nebraska | Purdue
Mid-Majors – Central Michigan | Denver | Florida Gulf Coast | Harvard | Illinois State | New Mexico | Rice | Utah State
Pac-12 – Arizona | Arizona State | Colorado | Oregon | Utah | Washington | Washington State
SEC – Arkansas | Mississippi State | Ole Miss | Vanderbilt
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco
2011 was a befuddling and ultimately unsuccessful season for Wisconsin and head coach Paula Wilkins. A team that looked to be set to take another step forward in their progression back towards the elite instead regressed noticeably. What made Wisconsin’s fall that much more puzzling was some of the team’s results over the course of the season. These Badgers after all had beaten Dayton on the road, despite being second best noticeably in long stretches. They had also been the only team in the Big Ten to have beaten eventual champs Penn State, topping the Nittany Lions in an unbelievably cynical display in Madison in the league opener, racking up four bookings and twenty-seven fouls, but also the only goal of the match.
After that crucial win, Wisconsin looked like good bets for a title challenge, which would’ve been a big payoff in an ambitious rebuilding project in Madison. Once upon a time, the Badgers were one of the Midwest’s mightiest programs, reaching a pair of College Cups and the 1991 College Cup final under future USWNT coach Greg Ryan. Dean Duerst took over at the beginning of the Big Ten era in 1994 and kept the Badgers rolling initially, with a league title in 1996 and a pair of runner-up finishes in 1994 and 1995. The Badgers also won the inaugural Big Ten Tournament, completing a double.
But there was also an ominous sign in that first season, when Wisconsin went out at the first hurdle in the NCAA Tournament. It was an initial signal of the inconsistency that would plague the Badgers’ under Duerst’s reign as coach. Wisconsin would alternate making the Big Dance and missing out every year between 1996-2004, with atrocious six and five win seasons tossed into the mix, the latter coming as UW finished rock bottom of the league in 2001. By the turn of the millennium, Duerst’s Badgers were all but finished as title contenders in the Big Ten, now destined to be rooted in mid-table in the league.
Wisconsin would rally to win the Big Ten Tournament in 2005, but in typical Badger fashion, would blow it in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, ruining their first string of successive appearances in the field of sixty-four since 1995-1996. It was essentially the beginning of the end for Duerst’s tenure with Wisconsin as his side lumped to a 7-9-3 season in 2006, finishing seventh in the league with the program’s first losing season since 2001. Afer Duerst inevitably fell on his sword, Wisconsin went ambitious with his replacement to say the very least, hiring former Penn State head coach Paula Wilkins who had achieved quite a bit of success in her time with the Nitany Lions.
It was a bit of a shock to say the least to see Wilkins suddenly walk away from such a talent rich side in Happy Valley to take on a rebuilding project in Madison. And make no mistake about it, nothing about Wisconsin was a quick fix. Wilkins was only able to put together a pair of tenth place finishes in her first two seasons with the club, both non-winning campaigns. Badger fans had to have been hoping that it was just a matter of taking a step or two back in order to take a big step forward in coming seasons. 2009 was such a step forward as the Badgers soared up the Big Ten standings into third place and qualified for their first NCAA Tournament since 2005 with relative ease.
There, they had their best run in the Big Dance since the days of Ryan, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1993 before falling to Boston College. With most of the key pieces returning for the Badgers going into 2010, there was buzz that UW could be in position to challenge for their first league title in nearly a decade and a half. That season started out in stuttering fashion, with the club going winless in their first five, and Wilkins read her team the riot act after a scoreless draw against South Dakota State. It worked and then some, with the club losing just once in their final fifteen matches of the regular season.
The offense was pedestrian, but the defense was so good it hardly mattered, as the Badgers gave up just eight goals in the regular season and kept nine straight clean sheets at one point. A hard fought title race saw Wisconsin finish third, a point off co-champs Penn State and Ohio State. The Badgers would advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament before falling in a state derby to Marquette after penalties.
With a steely and experienced squad returning for 2011, supporters surely hoped for another run at the title. After an opening day loss to Notre Dame, the club reeled off five wins in a row, though it was hard to discount the presence of a few dogs on the schedule, with Wisconsin-Green Bay and Northern Illinois’ RPI proving to be poisonous later on. Defeat to Wisconsin-Milwaukee stung, but a loss to Central Michigan in the final non-conference match was a sign that all might not be right in Madison. The club began on a winning note in league play with the aforementioned win over Penn State, followed by a victory against Michigan.
The title bid would come to an abrupt halt though, as Wisconsin went into the tank, winning just one of their next six. Suddenly, instead of vying for a league crown, Wisconsin were fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives. Two wins in their final three sealed fourth in the league, but the club had taken so many hits to their RPI that they needed a few wins in the Big Ten Tournament to make it three NCAA Tournaments in a row. They didn’t get one, falling meekly to Minnesota in the opening round, 2-0. It was the end of the line for Wisconsin in a season that had promised much but had delivered little in the end, as the weight of expectation and no small degree of inconsistency had devoured the Badgers.
That weight will probably be lifted off of Wisconsin’s shoulders this season, with few likely to tip them for honors after their flop last season. Last season’s squad had returned mostly intact from 2010, one reason for such high expectations, but the Badgers do have some very real holes to plug this season thanks to graduation and offseason transfers. The loss of Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year Michele Dalton is a massive one, with the veteran netminder often keeping her club in matches last season with her assured displays.
Wisconsin’s defense held up pretty well, tying for second in league goals allowed, but Dalton faced a lot of shots, meaning the Badgers certainly weren’t airtight in front of goal as they had been to a large degree the season before. The other big loss is of big target forward Laurie Nosbusch, who had been the club’s bulwark up front for so long. Nosbusch had scored ten goals in 2010 while being the club’s primary, and some would say only, source of offense and looked to be headed for a big senior year. But while her shot volume increased, the production in front of goal decreased, with the senior dipping to just six goals.
She did end up leading the team with six assists though, which ended up benefitting the club’s new attacking star, Cara Walls, who had nine goals in a splendid rookie season. There’s still a fair amount of talent on Wisconsin’s roster, so if they can compensate for the losses in personnel and shake off last season’s malaise, you wouldn’t put it past them to bounce right back into the NCAA Tournament.
Wisconsin has a rather sizable hole to fill in between the pipes this season with the loss of Dalton, one of the club’s best ever goalkeepers. After not seeing a minute in her first two seasons in Madison, Dalton won the starting role in 2009 and didn’t look back, blossoming into one of the nation’s top goalkeepers. The Badger keeper would save her best for last, with the aforementioned Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year honor as she often stood on her head to bail out a wobbly defense at times. Considering Dalton played every minute in goal last season, it’s a little bit hard to come out and immediately tab a successor with any great certainty.
Fifth-year senior Lauren Gunderson is the elder stateswoman of the contenders, with a pair of starts in both 2009 and 2010, though she didn’t log a minute last season for the club. Canadian junior Genevieve Richard certainly has quality credentials having been her country’s keeper of record in a U17 World Cup along with some invites to U20 camp but hasn’t actually featured at this level yet. Another senior, Olivia Hoff, hasn’t seen action in two seasons and is a likely longshot for the starting job. Whoever emerges as the club’s #1 this season has an unenviable task though in replacing the talented Dalton in between the posts.
The Badger defense wasn’t quite as impregnable last season as it was in 2010, but the group certainly has a chance to rebound with many a starter returning for the new season. Wilkins will have to do without senior leader Meghan Flannery though. After breaking into the starting lineup as a rookie and then showing well in 2009 with two goals and four assists, Flannery turned into a defensive stalwart for the Badgers, earning All-Big Ten First Team honors in 2010 while starting every match in the final three years of her tenure in Madison. Leigh Williams, who saw time in defense as well as midfield, also departs.
Wisconsin’s defense this season will likely rely on a heavy dose of senior Lindsey Johnson, who had a breakout season last year for the Badgers. After impressing as a freshman, Johnson has cemented her place as a mainstay on the backline, also showing she’s dangerous in the attack as well, recording four assists last season. Johnson earned All-Great Lakes Second Team honors last year and should again be one of the league’s standout defenders. Junior Catie Sessions also looks to be just scratching the surface of her enormous potential after a pair of impressive seasons for the Badgers. A big threat going forward, Sessions has added five assists for the club the past two seasons and should again be a threat offensively this season.
Another option in defense is senior Joana Bielefeld, who started her career at Ohio before transferring to Wisconsin and has slowly grown into an integral part of the Badger starting core. Bielefeld is comfortable on defense or in midfield and will conceivably be used where needed this season, with a goal and two assists last season showing some of her skills in front of goal. Sophomore Alexandra Heller had a bit of a slow start to her Wisconsin career, redshirting as a true freshman and playing in just two of the clubs first seven last year, but soon became invaluable to the club in defense, starting thirteen matches for UW in 2011 and should contend for a starting role again.
Left-back Lauren Reid won a starting role from the off in her rookie year last season and started seven games but then missed eight in a row and only came back for three matches down the stretch. If she stays healthy, she could be another young boost for the club in defense. To the above, the club adds in rookie Brianna Stelzer, a member of the vaunted Minnesota Thunder club side and a danger on set pieces as well as being a strong 1v1 defender. Johnson looks like a star, Sessions probably isn’t far off that level, and this group has a good deal of options for depth. Given that and the program’s track record, this should be one of the league’s best defenses.
The losses aren’t quite as pronounced as in the defense, but Wisconsin still must do a little bit of lineup shuffling. Williams ended up starting sixty-two matches in her four-year career, including ten in 2011, and was a versatile asset capable in defense and midfield for the Badgers. An added blow was the loss of freshman Julia Roddar, a Swedish youth international who started fifteen games for the club and looked to be a key part of the future in Madison before transferring to Florida Gulf Coast before the Spring. Also departing is Lauren Cochlin, a key reserve for the club all four years she was with the Badgers.
The centerpiece of the midfield this season figures to be senior Alev Kelter, a star for the Badgers on the pitch and on the ice, with the UW hockey team. A combative presence in midfield that ended up with as many bookings as goals last year (4), Kelter should provide the fire and spark in the middle of the pitch, and the two-time All-Big Ten Second Team performer has a clutch nature in front of goal as well, with five career game winners. Canadian senior Monica Lam-Feist comes is a former youth international at U20 level and has been a mainstay in the starting lineup the past three seasons. The Surrey native hasn’t quite developed into the star some may have expected but is still a solid starter with six career goals to go with five career assists and provides invaluable experience to the midfield.
Bielefeld started every match for the club last season and though listed as a defender can also put in a shift in midfield if needed as well. Adding depth is senior Lindsey Hamann, one of the club’s top options off the bench the past three years. Wisconsin will also hope to be boosted by the return from injury of Canadian sophomore Kodee Williams. The U20 international was a bright spark as a rookie in 2010, with four goals and four assists and looked to be a pivotal member of the offense heading into 2011 before injury hit. Williams could also be deployed up front if the frontline needs a boost.
Another hoping to shake the injury bug is fifth-year senior Erin Jacobsen. Jacobsen was an All-Big Ten Second Team selection in 2010 and a three-year starter, but the veteran missed all of last season through injury and was missed dearly. Jacobsen has a bit of a scoring touch when on form, with seven goals and six assists to her name, and would be a big boost if healthy this year.
There’s further excitement though with some big-time rookie additions. Diamond Simpson had originally been set to join the Badgers last season but took last season off to train with the Canadian WNT. Something of a child prodigy, Simpson was on the U17 World Cup team at just fourteen years of age and has since earned caps at full international level. A central midfielder with the potential to be a star, many eyes will be on Simpson this year…likely after August though, as the Canadian seems a good bet to be at the U20 World Cup.
Compatriot Kinley McNicoll also has U17 World Cup experience and is a workhorse who seems like another good bet to make the step up to the U20 team in the near future. Lexi Peterson has starred on a very successful NSA Premier team at club level and has the potential to be an attacking force down the flank with great crossing ability. Finally, Wisconsin native Marta Wangard has been praised by Wilkins as someone who can keep possession and playmake in the final third and should also compete for early minutes. Kelter and Lam-Feist aren’t likely to make headlines but are gritty and experienced and should head up a solid group with excellent potential thanks to the influx of young talent.
Nosbusch looks like the only loss this season in the frontline, but she’s a big one for the reasons listed above and so many more. The ever steady striker finished her career fifth in the history of the program in goals and points and sixth in assists, which isn’t so bad for a club known for its defense in recent days. Her legacy looks to be in safe hands though with the return of Cara Walls, who more than lived up to the hype as a rookie, with nine goals to her name, doing it in just thirty-two shots, for a stunning ratio of a goal in less than four shots taken on the season. Walls will truly be tested this season though with no Nosbusch beside her and everyone gunning to shut her down.
That makes it critical for a secondary option to emerge in Madison. Canadian youth international Paige Adams has seen a promising career mostly derailed by injuries. After three goals and three assists as a rookie in 2009, Adams missed all of 2010 through injury and was a shadow of her former self last year, with just three starts, five shots, and one goal. Another year removed from injury, the hope is that Adams can rekindle some of her past form for the Badgers. Nikki Greenhalgh could also be in the conversation for increased minutes after featuring as a reserve last year, but the sophomore was mostly a non-factor in front of goal, with just a goal and an assist to her name.
As is the case with the midfield, Wisconsin will be looking to get some mileage out of their rookies as well. Lindsey Holmes has a rocket for a shot as well as playmaking abilities and was a star in ECNL action for FC Milwaukee in recent months and should be in the frame for major minutes right away. Also in the mix will be versatile Courtney McHugh, good spearheading the attack or causing damage out on the flank with her pace. Walls looks like the real deal, but there are questions over whether her supporting cast will be up for the fight along with her this year.
Given that the Badgers were a dark horse in many’s eyes to make a run for the Big Ten title last season, to have fallen so short made them arguably one of the nation’s most disappointing teams of 2011. The Penn State match aside, there was probably more offensive thrust about this team last year than in previous seasons under Wilkins in Madison. Whether that will be repeated this season without Nosbusch to utilize up front is up for debate, though the talent of Walls is not.
The club looks very solid in defense and in midfield, with the latter also potentially being a showcase for some great rookie talent. Dalton’s loss could be a telling one though, and replacing her adequately could ultimately decide the fate of Wisconsin’s season. If they can compensate for her loss, the Badgers could land in upper-mid table and back in the NCAA Tournament. If not, it could be a repeat of last season’s tepid campaign.