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The Golden Age of Wisconsin athletics is upon us

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The Badgers are soaring, and not just in their most prominent programs.

81st Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Western Michigan v Wisconsin Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

It’s been nearly the best of times. It’s been a lot of heart-wrenching times for Wisconsin Badgers fans as well.

Despite committing 16 turnovers and missing 10 free throws, the men’s basketball team mustered enough magic to hit a game-tying three with seconds left in regulation (title belt taunt included) and came within one second of advancing to the Elite Eight last month. Chris Chiozza’s off-balanced shot stunned and shocked Badgers faithful in the 84-83 overtime loss.

Wisconsin’s women hockey losing to Clarkson 3-0 in the NCAA hockey championship also stung a fan base yearning for a championship.

In early December, Penn State’s aerial assault in the Big Ten Championship game could be best described as a real-life situation where a character from Super Mario Bros. consumed a star and decimated a reliable Wisconsin secondary. The 38-34 loss cost the Badgers a Big Ten championship, a trip to Pasadena for the first time since January 2013, and an outside shot at the College Football Playoff.

Coming up short in these huge games frustrates fans, but it also pierces the hearts and minds of those student-athletes and coaches even further. Hours and hours of conditioning, lifting, then practices and beyond. Injuries and pain are part of sports, but they have to deal with not just the physical anguish, but the mental fatigue and the “what ifs” each time they get off the field.

When competing at such a high level, sometimes both teams are good—one is just better that specific game. It’s not a cop-out, it’s just the way it is.

Expectations should be high for Wisconsin athletics these days, with so many programs thriving and succeeding simultaneously. Some teams find themselves in a renaissance, while others have continued to churn out wins and unforgettable moments. Is this the Golden Age of Badgers athletics?

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Wisconsin vs Western Michigan Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin football has continued to thrive despite having three head coaches since December 2012, winning 10-plus games in six of the past eight seasons. Yes, Gary Andersen wasn’t the right fit in Madison after Bret Bielema left. Yet he still won 19 games in his two years. The culture continued with Paul Chryst returning to his alma mater. In 2016, despite a tough schedule and question marks at different positions heading into the season opener, the Badgers reeled off 11 wins—capping it off with a New Year’s Six bowl victory over Western Michigan in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.

Heading into 2017, despite the losses of Corey Clement, Vince Biegel, Ryan Ramczyk, T.J. Watt, and Sojourn Shelton, UW has returners at key positions and could be primed for a huge season ahead.

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook has looked stellar taking over the reigns full-time from Bart Houston, and there’s a lot to like on both sides of the ball—particularly at running back, tight end, both lines, inside linebacker, and in my opinion, the secondary despite losing Shelton and free safety Leo Musso.

That could extend the streak currently enjoyed by both the football and men’s basketball programs:

  • Three consecutive years of a bowl win and Sweet 16 appearances, matching the second-longest streak in NCAA history
  • Fifteen straight years of both appearances in the NCAA tournament and a bowl game (most all-time)
  • The most combined bowl game and NCAA tournament appearances since 1996 (40!)

The men’s basketball program loses four seniors, who by the numbers below have put together one of the most impressive résumés in program history. Next year, Greg Gard will have to transition and hope those like Charles Thomas, Alex Illikainen, Brevin Pritzl, and Andy van Vliet progress to starting or contributing roles.

Forward Ethan Happ will be called upon even further to develop and be the go-to guy after collecting first-team All-Big Ten honors and some All-American nods. Forward Khalil Iverson showed amazing energy and tenacity his first two seasons, and his third at UW could be special. Will D’Mitrik Trice evolve further as a sophomore guard, and how will Gard utilize the likes of incoming freshmen Brad Davison, Kobe King, and Nathan Reuvers—all prep gems who make up a top-25 class according to the three major recruiting services?

Gard took over for Bo Ryan and now has two Sweet 16 appearances under his wing, coming within a hair of reaching the Elite Eight in both. The program’s trip to Australia and New Zealand before the 2017-18 season starts should help team chemistry and development.

Ryan had to deal with less talent in some of his years coaching at UW, yet still managed to finish no lower than fourth in the conference and didn’t miss the tournament in his tenure in Madison. Don’t doubt what Gard, his coaching staff, and his players could do.

Volleyball has thrived under Kelly Sheffield, who replaced the program’s all-time wins leader, Pete Waite, and is 113-28 over four seasons and earned the first-ever No. 1 ranking in program history in 2016. All four seasons under the former Dayton head coach have culminated in NCAA tournament appearances, including reaching the NCAA tournament championship game in 2013.

Lauren Carlini is the only four-time All-American in school history, while Haleigh Nelson, Tionna Williams, and Molly Hagerty earned All-American nods from the American Volleyball Coaches Association.

Women’s hockey continued its greatness under Mark Johnson, coming within one game in St. Louis from adding a fifth national championship under his tenure. Badgers fans witnessed some of the best goal-tending ever seen by Patty Kazmaier Award winner Ann-Renée Desbiens, who shut out opponents an NCAA-record 55 times in her career. Fifty-five. Four players were named All-Americans this season as well.

Taking over for another longtime coach, Tony Granato in just one season sparked an energy into a men’s hockey team that began to flounder under Mike Eaves. That’s nothing against Eaves, who guided Wisconsin to a national title in 2006 and national runner-up in 2010. Granato, a former NHL player and coach, however, led a team without many high external expectations to within one game of a Big Ten tournament championship and automatic NCAA tournament berth.

A 12-win improvement has the program trending upward, even with the declaration of Luke Kunin pursuing his professional career.

Wisconsin’s softball team is currently 23-5 (2-3 Big Ten), and freshman Kaitlyn Menz pitched the program’s seventh no-hitter in history last month. Rose Lavelle led women’s soccer, was drafted No. 1 overall in the National Women’s Soccer League, and has already turned heads on the international stage for the U.S. national team.

Let’s not forget the track and field programs still running at high levels and churning out championships—and Olympians (hello, Kelsey Card and Zach Ziemek).

When you then look at the state of Wisconsin athletics compared to decades past, there are reasons why older fans may clamor that this latest generation of fans doesn’t understand the degree of miserable results previously seen year in and year out.

As an eight-year-old, I stared at a 1991 Miller Lite college football schedule from a Milwaukee liquor store wondering where the Badgers were located. When I did, their 1-10 record from 1990 was printed meekly at the bottom of the Big Ten section. Over two years later, I clipped out Rose Bowl “trading cards” from copies of the Milwaukee Journal of Darrell Bevell, Terrell Fletcher, and Joe Panos. The change had started.

Now, the Golden Age of Wisconsin athletics is, in fact, upon us. UW isn’t just a hockey school or one with a football program that hamstrings assistants’ pay, according to one particular head coach. It’s not just a “system” for men’s basketball. This athletic department is running nearly on all cylinders throughout.

The pieces started falling in place when Donna Shalala hired Pat Richter as Wisconsin’s athletics director in the late 1980s. The UW legend and former NFL player then hired the likes of Barry Alvarez, Stu Jackson, Dick Bennett, Ryan, Johnson, and so on.

Big Ten and Rose Bowl championships started for football, NCAA tournament berths and then a Final Four appearance for Bennett’s 1999-2000 squad. The advent of women’s hockey started during the same year as Wisconsin’s improbable Final Four run.

Alvarez replaced Richter as athletics director over a decade ago and has continued the progression that’s now seen success and a continued culture that flourishes. Expectations will be even higher going forward, but that’s just fine.

Wisconsin is in good, if not great, shape for the foreseeable future. The foundation is even stronger than before for future championship banners to hang from the Kohl Center, from the Fieldhouse, from LaBahn Arena, and under the lights of Camp Randall Stadium.

[Update April 7: Correctly spelled Brad Davison’s name. Apologies on the discrepancy.]