When the record books closed on the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s women’s soccer season for 2019, the numbers pointed to a lengthy series of triumphs for a team that ultimately clinched the Big Ten championship crown. Team representatives say the coveted award is an outward sign of years of hard work and collaboration between coaches and players alike.
“As a coach, all you want to do is see [the players] achieve things that you know they can do,” says Paula Wilkins, head coach of the Badgers’ women’s soccer team for the past 13 years. The Big Ten championship was an especially sweet reward, and a welcome return to the UW–Madison campus. The last time the Badgers won the title outright was in 1994, though they also secured a share of the 2015 Big Ten championship.
Speaking to the accomplishments leading up to the Big Ten crown, Paula says, “They did it as a collective group. The team has stayed very cohesive. It’s so exciting to see that dynamic and their success.” When all was said and done, the 30 women soccer players wearing a UW Badgers jersey this past season notched an overall record of 16 wins, 4 losses, and 2 ties in regular and postseason play. In addition to the Big Ten tournament, they also played in the NCAA tournament, where they won two games before losing to UCLA on November 24 in Los Angeles, closing out the season.
While the season might not have ended exactly as hoped, Paula says there is much to celebrate as the team looks to the 2020 season to maintain and build on the many high points of this past season. The can-do attitude Paula says she and the other members of the women’s soccer coaching staff try to instill in players was evident throughout this past season, which began with back-to-back exhibition games in mid-August before notching the team’s first win of the season against the University of Central Florida on August 22.
Paula says the UW women’s soccer team has consistently demonstrated a desire to train hard and be challenged. “They take care of the details,” she says. “They’re very disciplined in what they do and what we ask them to do. They’re very competitive. They believe they’re going to be successful.”
While each player is key to the team’s success, there were several standout players in the 2019 season. Senior forward Dani Rhodes, for instance, demonstrated her ability to produce goals throughout regular and postseason play. Junior forward Cameron Murtha also netted a number of notable goals from one game to the next.
Historically, Paula says many of the UW’s soccer players have hailed from the Midwest—namely Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota—though others had roots in other areas of the United States and even Canada. Regardless of the locale and a player’s specific walk of life, Paula says a culture of camaraderie has been embedded within the team. “I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.”
Before coming to Madison to helm the women’s soccer team’s 2007 season, Paula built up a coaching resume in her home state of Pennsylvania. She was the head coach of women’s soccer at Penn State University from 2001 to 2006 and an assistant coach at Penn State from 1994 to 2000. Paula says a meeting with coach Barry Alvarez prior to being offered and accepting the job made the prospect of coming to UW–Madison an enticing proposition. “We talked about building teams and making them better,” Paula says. “The allure of building up a team and recognizing the potential that was there was of great interest to me.”
Throughout Paula’s time coaching the UW women’s soccer program, the Badgers have achieved a number of titles and accomplishments as preludes to this fall’s award of the Big Ten crown. Other accomplishments within the team’s recent history include back-to-back NCAA Sweet 16 appearances in 2018 and 2019 and taking part in the second round of NCAA tournaments in 2014, 2016, and 2017. Another high point came in 2014, when Paula, her coaching staff, and the players were credited with having the team’s greatest number of wins in the program’s history. A total of 19 victories were notched that year alongside 3 losses and 2 ties.
Consistent, robust fan support on and off the UW–Madison campus is another reason for the Badgers’ ongoing success in the women’s soccer program. Regardless of the time of season, Paula says fans frequently make their appearances known and cheer the women on from one game to the next.
The fan interaction manifests itself in other ways as well, especially when an opportunity to reach out to a young, budding player arises. “Soccer is a pretty popular sport in the United States,” Paula says. “We like to do a lot of community outreach. It’s a huge part of what our players do, actually.”
It’s not lost on the coaching staff, players, or fans that the stronger the relationship between each of them, the louder the support for the program and its impact on the sport as a whole. Going forward, UW–Madison’s women’s soccer will certainly continue finding success in the Greater Madison area, and if Paula and her players keep it up, those successes will translate to a more decorated trophy case.
Dave Fidlin is a freelance writer who has a special affinity for Madison. Dave’s career spans nearly 20 years, and he’s grateful for the opportunity to learn something new each day through his professional pursuits.