The underdog label fits just fine with the University of Wisconsin women’s soccer team.
After a first-round NCAA tournament rout of Toledo last week, the Badgers face No. 1 seed South Carolina on the road on Friday.
It’ll be a challenge for UW. The Gamecocks (16-2-1) were third in the Ratings Percentage Index and are 7-0-1 at home.
The Badgers (14-5-2) made it into the tournament with a No. 29 RPI ranking, but coach Paula Wilkins said that not being favored works to her team’s favor.
“I think our team mentality is that we’ve got nothing to lose so we’re going to throw it all out there,” said Wilkins, whose team is 6-2-1 on the road. “It’s fun to watch because they play a little bit more loose. And by doing that, I think it makes them actually a little bit better.”
Wilkins and the Badgers have evidence to provide, some recent, some in the season’s early days.
In the first half of last Friday’s home game against Toledo, UW was a tight bunch and went to the break scoreless.
Wilkins said she had to tell her team to relax. Their change in demeanor paid off in the form of five second-half goals for a 5-0 victory.
Three of those goals were from first-time college scorers: Jordan McNeese, Allie Winterfield and Grace Douglas, who scored twice. McNeese is a sophomore from DeForest, and Douglas is a sophomore from Cross Plains who played high school soccer at Middleton.
“Those three getting their first goals has been really exciting,” Wilkins said. “It just even makes us more dangerous in different parts moving forward against South Carolina.”
The other experiences that UW can lean on as it heads to Columbia are a pair of victories over ranked teams and a road upset in the Big Ten Conference tournament.
On Aug. 31, the Badgers beat No. 3 Virginia on the road, a signature victory early in the season. They also defeated No. 11 Penn State on Oct. 25.
Seeded sixth in the conference postseason, UW went on the road to oust third-seeded Minnesota in the opening round on Oct. 29.
“It’s huge, because now there’s a belief that they can play against teams of that caliber,” Wilkins said. “And even moving forward, not even this year but next year, we graduate two seniors off our starting lineup. That understanding of what they need to bring in those games, the level of intensity, the level of focus, the level of effort has just taught them that they can do it, and that every game is winnable.
“Everybody says this is the reason why you play games, right? And it’s very true for this group. They’re excited for the next challenge.”