The Badgers (13-8-2) will ride a seven-game winning streak into their first-round matchup with Marquette (17-3-1) Friday in Milwaukee. Three weeks ago, UW seemed light years from qualifying for the 64-team field. But the Badgers clinched an automatic berth with a 3-1 win over Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament championship game Sunday afternoon.
The victory over the Wolverines was a crescendo for the Badgers' awakening, an incredible reversal of fortunes for a team that was 6-8-2 after a 2-1 loss to Indiana on Oct. 16.
"We just believed in ourselves," coach Dean Duerst said. "And kind of the great team we are showed itself. We're hungry for more."
The Badgers have proven to be a strong side in their past seven games — they have out-scored their opponents 20-4 during their winning streak.
"We're peaking. We're playing our best soccer," Duerst said. "(The players') roles are pretty well defined by this time. But they are playing so well together. And that's kind of a coach's dream. You just want to say, ‘Go out and play. You know what you are doing, you are peaking.'"
Now, Wisconsin will prepare to face Marquette, the only in-state Division I program the Badgers did not play during the regular season.
"Every year we have a goal to be No. 1 in state," Duerst said. "This is now that opportunity. We didn't get to play (Marquette). We beat Milwaukee and we beat Green Bay. So this is a chance for us to really be No. 1 in the state."
UW typically faces Marquette during the season, but the two schools could not find a date that worked within their respective scheduling logistics. Duerst said this was partially related to the Golden Eagles move into the Big East Conference.
"Next year it may be difficult too just in how scheduling is becoming in soccer," Duerst said. "We're going two, three, four years out, which is making it a little bit more difficult. We want to play Marquette every year. We really respect that program."
The teams will square off this week, with plenty riding on the game. Marquette is the No. 4 seed in the upper right quadrant of the NCAA Tournament. (In each of the four quadrants, the NCAA seeded No. 1 thru No. 4). If the Badgers win Friday, they will face one of two teams that they are also quite familiar with: the winner of the Purdue (11-7-1)/UW-Milwaukee (12-4-4) match.
The Badgers beat Milwaukee 4-0 in September. They lost to Purdue 1-0 in the regular season, but shocked the Boilermakers 3-0 in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament Thursday.
"We're riding this momentum right now," Duerst said. "And it's an exciting bracket. We know we can actually come out of that bracket as winners."
Duerst said that after watching the film of their previous defeat to Purdue, the Badgers had a lot of confidence that they would win.
"We reviewed (the loss to Purdue) with them when we showed film," Duerst said. "And they played a great game actually. We should have really won that game. Purdue's a strong team and we just knew we could go down and beat them."
The Badgers been playing with a great deal of self-assurance in the past three weeks. They hope to translate that momentum into a strong run in the NCAA Tournament.