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With experienced lineup, Wisconsin Badgers women’s soccer needs to avoid complacency trap

September 6, 2018

The University of Wisconsin women’s soccer program has enjoyed a generally upward trajectory over the last decade, with NCAA tournament appearances in the last two seasons, three of the last four and six of the last nine.

What worries coach Paula Wilkins about that kind of momentum, however, is the potential for complacency.

“As a coach, the biggest trap you possibly can ever get is that they just expect it to happen,” she said. “I’ve been trying to push them to be a little bit better, but we’ll see how that translates here at the beginning. Sometimes it breeds a little bit too much of a comfortability, and that’s my biggest concern looking forward with these guys.”

The Badgers have been through some humbling moments in the opening weeks of the season, but they also have shown reason to think that their experience-laden lineup will have the ability to produce more productive outings.

UW (4-1) won all three games on the road last week — at Kentucky, Washington and Portland — after a 3-0 home loss to No. 6 Florida State. A four-game home stand starts Thursday against Illinois State at the McClimon Track/Soccer Complex.

With nine starters back from last year’s team, the Badgers have designs on improving their postseason record. They crashed out in the second round of both the Big Ten Conference and NCAA tournaments in 2017.

“I think there’s a lot of things that were left unsaid or undone on the field,” said junior forward Dani Rhodes, the team’s top goal-scorer last season. “Bringing back the nine starters — and we pride ourselves on having a deep bench as well — that just makes us stronger and makes us better. This team has a drive and a confidence that will get us pretty far.”

All four starting defenders return — juniors Payton Wesley, Grace Douglas and Camryn Biegalski and sophomore Sammy Kleedtke — in front of a new goalkeeper. Junior Jordyn Bloomer replaced the graduated Caitlyn Clem, who started all 64 games over the last three seasons.

The midfield is led by Rhodes’ fellow MAC Hermann Trophy watch list selection, Victoria Pickett, who became a first-team all-Big Ten selection last year in the tough role of replacing Rose Lavelle.

Up front, Rhodes is trying to get back into form after missing the preseason and the opening victory at Marquette with a foot injury. For someone with game-changing speed, that’s a tough way to start a season.

Rhodes, the Gatorade state soccer player of the year for Waukesha West in 2015 and 2016, led the Badgers with 11 goals, 27 points and 73 shots last year. Her knack for finishing counterattacks with goals is become as well known with UW as her tenacity.

“I was talking to some of our players about Dani, and they’re like, ‘I just hate playing against her because she’s annoying, but in a good way,’” Wilkins said. “She’s around. You have to pay attention. She’ll sneak by you. She’ll grab you a little bit.”

For her part, Rhodes said there’s no switch she can turn on and off to differentiate between practices and games.

“You can’t just be a gamer,” she said. “You’ve got to practice it.”

The Badgers’ loss to Florida State was just their seventh defeat in 42 home games since 2014. In the last four years, they have won conference regular-season and tournament titles and won three NCAA first-round games.

That means pressure to continue the form, which is welcome.

“I think there’s some expectations put on these kids for that, without anybody outside doing it,” Wilkins said. “I think they’ve put more pressure on themselves to do it.”

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