While many of the sports programs on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus have gone through ebbs and flows over the years, the women’s basketball team has enjoyed a fairly consistent and stable track record since its inception in the mid-1970s. Strong leadership and, of course, a continuous roster of talented, dedicated athletes have been attributed to the program’s durability over the years.
Head Coach Jonathan Tsipis, who has helmed the team since the 2016-17 season, says the stability he inherited from his predecessor, former Head Coach Bobbie Kelsey, coupled with a strong assistant coaching staff has made regular Big Ten tournament appearances a routine part of the experience. “I think we’ve put a good foundation in place,” Jonathan says. “We’ve had a lot of good years where we’ve come in and seized opportunities.”
Jonathan’s coaching career began at the associate and assistant level at the University of Notre Dame in the 2003-04 season and advanced nine years later to George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., for four years. The Ohio native says he had aspirations of eventually laying down long-term roots somewhere in the Midwest—a point he says his family reiterated throughout his time at George Washington University. “You can take your children out of the Midwest, but you can’t take the Midwest out of your children,” he says with a laugh.
While Jonathan had minimal exposure to the UW–Madison campus before being offered and accepting the head women’s basketball coaching job, he quickly found desirables within the Badgers athletic community. “Through networking, I had heard about the possibility of a job opening,” he says. “I had always heard great things.”
Throughout the team’s history, which stretches back to the 1974-75 season, there have been a number of monumental highlights sprinkled in during regular- and postseason play. One of the more notable footnotes occurred 20 years ago, when UW won the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, narrowly defeating Florida 75-74 in the final round. The accomplishment made the Badgers the WNIT champions at the close of the 1999-2000 season.
Numerous NCAA appearances also have taken place over the years, including back-to-back advancements in the second round of play in the 1994-95 and 1995-96 seasons. The Badgers also have made five appearances in the first round of NCAA tournaments, most recently in the 2009-10 season.
As he looks to the future of the team, Jonathan aspires to maintain the steady approach that has been a hallmark of the program over the years. But knocking at the door of a large-scale championship is another short-term desire. On long-term aspirations, “We definitely want to be in the top of the Big Ten.”
The most recent 2019-20 season came to a close in the second round of the Big Ten tournament as the Badgers fell to Rutgers, 55-63, on March 5. It resulted in a 12th place finish in the Big Ten conference. The season-ending tally put the Badgers in a slightly better position compared to recent years. The team finished 13th place in the Big Ten conference in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons.
At the close of the most recent season, there were a number of individual accomplishments within the 16-player roster, as evidenced by the naming of three players to this year’s Big Ten honors. The recognition, which reflects performance on the court during the regular season, is an annual tradition at the beginning of March.
Sophomore Imani Lewis earned second-team All-Big Ten honor, by media vote, and also received honorable All-Big Ten mentions from league coaches. Imani’s highlights this past season included scoring 12 points and 11 rebounds in a February 22 game against Northwestern. Senior Abby Laszewski earned an All-Big Ten honorable mention, also by media vote. Abby was UW’s second-leading scorer this past season, averaging 11.9 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. Rounding out the list of this year’s honorees was senior Suzanne Gilreath, named a Big Ten sportsmanship honoree.
While athletic performance is an often-celebrated aspect of the women’s basketball program, Jonathan says academics are of equal importance. In terms of GPAs and achievement within the classroom, the women wearing a Badgers basketball jersey have a long history of performing at the head of the class within the Big Ten.
Alongside coaching and individual player accomplishments, fan support has been important fuel to the engine that is the team’s historical successes and milestones. “I think we’ve had great support,” Jonathan says, pointing out it means a great deal to each of the players as they put in long hours training to get out on the court and play each season.
Outside Madison, the Badgers have also enjoyed strong partnerships with high schools across Wisconsin, as collaborative relationships have been forged with coaches in different corners of the state as prospective students consider coming to UW–Madison for academic and athletic reasons. “It’s such a supportive state,” Jonathan says. “It’s something all of us have come to appreciate.”
Five of this past year’s 16 players hailed from Wisconsin. Others resided in such states as Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Two players also had roots in other countries: Julie Pospisilova, from the Czech Republic, and Kendra Van Leeuwen, from Ontario, Canada.
Regardless of where players originate, Jonathan says there’s one common characteristic that binds the team together—a commitment to serve as positive role models, particularly to young girls who look up to the players. “We believe it’s very important to have those interactions.” The team regularly interacts with the community within and outside the parameters of the regular and postseasons to engage with fans.
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.