Taylor Wurtz has been impressive as a freshman for UW.[/media-credit]If the media guide didn’t contain the necessary information, you probably wouldn’t guess Taylor Wurtz is a freshman.Endowed with an unusual blend of guard skills and enviable size, Wurtz hasn’t spared a moment in making an impression on the Wisconsin women’s basketball team.“She’s just different,” head coach Lisa Stone said of her talented freshman. “She’s willing to work at it to make herself better. She’s an impressive person.”The first glimpse of Wurtz’s potential impact came in the Badgers’ lone exhibition game, a 106-39 undressing of UW-Oshkosh. In just 21 minutes of action, Wurtz filled the stat sheet –finishing with 10 points, five rebounds, four steals, two assists and, most importantly to Stone, zero turnovers.The Wurtz legend really began to grow, however, when the Badgers hosted Cleveland State three games later. Wisconsin trailed 68-67 when Wurtz buried a short jumper in the lane to give UW the lead.Then, with 16.5 seconds left in the game, she made one of two free throws to seal the dramatic victory.“We’re confident with her being the mismatch and her having the ability to take the shot,” Stone said. “It has nothing to do with her age.”Although the jumper against CSU may have been the biggest shot of her very young career, Wurtz is no stranger to bright lights, big numbers and clutch performances.In her career at Ripon High School, Wurtz was a four-time Eastern Valley Conference Player of the Year, an Associated Press All-State First-Team honoree as both a junior and senior, and a second-team selection as a sophomore.She left Ripon — which she led to three consecutive conference titles — as the all-time leader in points, assists, steals and 3-pointers.According to Stone, though, the Badgers’ coaching staff had their eyes on Wurtz, the player ranked No. 85 in the 2009 class by ESPN HoopGurlz, before she even stepped on the court in a high school game — back when she was a “small, little thing.”“I’ve watched Taylor since she was in junior high,” Stone said. “We recruited her throughout high school and had her on our radar list for a long, long time.”Thankfully for Stone, Wurtz said she never seriously considered any other schools, citing a desire to be close to family.Moreover, Wurtz shared the court with current Badgers Lin Zastrow, a junior forward from Jefferson, Wis., and Catie O’Leary, a fellow freshman from Janesville, during Amateur Athletic Union play.“It’s been an adjustment,” Wurtz said of acclimating to the new level. “[But] just to have some familiarity gives you some type of comfort. And from AAU, we’ve grown together, and it’s nice to be able to play at the collegiate level together.”No longer undersized by any stretch of the imagination, the 6-foot freshman already possesses a “Big Ten body,” a quality that allows Wisconsin to deploy her in positions one through four, providing the team with a helpful versatility with its lineup combinations.Despite her natural skills and superior build, Wurtz’s teammates reported her work ethic — something she has demonstrated since setting foot on campus — as the characteristic that sets her apart.“[It] says it all,” Rae Lin D’Alie, a senior guard and Wurtz’ workout partner, said. “A kid that is going to come in and work that hard, and be relentless, is going to see results.”But whether talking about her special talent or her drive, Wurtz said all of her basketball-related life starts with her dad, Lud Wurtz.“My dad is everything to me for basketball,” the younger Wurtz said. “He’s traveled with me all over the country, and he knows the game really well. So, after every game, he’ll sit down with me — he’ll critique me.”In a good indication of how far Taylor’s game has come, she said he no longer challenges her in one-on-one — an avoidance which she said “he blames on a bad hip.”While Wurtz may no longer be able to get the satisfaction of besting her old man, she said he has helped her become the player she is today — one with a bright future at Wisconsin, and hopefully, beyond.“I absolutely love the game, and I think God has given me a lot,” she said. “I want to play basketball as long as I can, so I just (want to) keep developing my skills so I can possibly play overseas or in the WNBA.”Such aspirations are not all that far-fetched considering the time Wurtz is already willing to put in.“She might be the one that most depicts being a gym rat of anyone I’ve coached,” Stone said. “She really is here all the time. I’ve never seen anybody like it. She watches a lot of film, she grasps the concepts, and she really wants to be able to make an impact.”Ever the nit-picker, Wurtz said of her game, “Something I would like to improve is defense off the ball, and rebounding and boxing out.”In the meantime, Wurtz will continue to fill a valuable sixth-man role on this year’s team and inspire her teammates with her determination.“Her intensity, her passion, it’s just — it’s contagious,” D’Alie said. “Just the passion she has, has brought some of my passion back. … I know when she’s out there that no matter what happens, she’s going to go 110 percent. That’s all you can ask as a teammate.”
When soccer icon David Beckham decided to take his talents elsewhere this past offseason – leaving the Los Angeles Galaxy in Major League Soccer for Paris Saint-Germain in France – many loyal MLS fans feared the worst.And this fear was certainly justified.In six seasons with the Galaxy, David Beckham had a tremendous impact on the state of soccer in the United States.Since his first game in 2007, the MLS has added five teams, while also increasing the average attendance at an MLS game by 3,000 fans. Teams that were lucky enough to schedule a game against Beckham and Co. in his five-year stint in America were likely to experience the benefits of the “Beckham bump,” which was a rise in attendance at games just to see him play.But that was then.Although it’s still considered a fringe sport in the United States, just outside of the big four – basketball, football, baseball and hockey – soccer has slowly but surely found its niche since MLS’s origins in the early 1990s.However, without its poster boy to advertise across the country, American soccer seemed poised for an identity crisis when the red carpet was rolled out for opening weekend in the MLS March 2 and 3.While teams continued to bring in new talent, none of the names were on the same level as Beckham’s – a name that is estimated will sell 22.7 million dollars worth of jerseys in his one-year contract with the Paris-based team – and so it seemed the MLS might fade back into the sports shadows without a new player to take the torch.But when the curtain was lifted for the opening act of MLS, and America’s best soccer was put on display Saturday, those who predicted an early exit stage left for the league could not have been more wrong.Of the season’s opening nine games, five of them finished with an attendance above the 2012 average of 18,807, two matched it, and only two fell below it. Leading the way Saturday was a raucous 38,998 crowd at hand for the Seattle Sounders’ first home game against Montreal.This begs the question: What has changed?The answer to that question is certainly not a simple one, as there are many factors that play a role in a league’s success, but the underlying factor contributing to continued growth for MLS soccer seems to be the direct result of a changing culture around the sport in the U.S.Like never before, the league has developed a sense of pride, a sense of camaraderie among its fans, spurred on largely by the MLS’ ability to market the league more effectively than in past seasons.I have seen this pride firsthand.Not long ago, after writing a column that lightly chastised the league and predicted MLS had reached its peak importance in America, my inbox was inundated with emails and comments from MLS fans across the country telling me I was wrong – some of the comments even longer than my column itself.While I brushed it off at the time as a few crazy fans too prideful to recognize a stagnant league when they saw one, I now see that they were the rule, not the exception.The MLS is here to stay, and the league itself has played a critical role in the successful branding of the fledgling league, especially heading into a 2013 season without the Beckham brand to help it out.While league games have typically been scheduled throughout the week in past seasons, the MLS made a move this season to host over 90 percent of its games on the weekends; the majority of those games have start times between the primetime hours of 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., which will make the league easier to follow than ever before.Even more importantly, the MLS has finally realized the tremendous power that rivalries hold in the world of sports.If there is one thing sports fans love more than cheering for their own team, it is cheering against the villains they despise.With the development of league rivalries over the last few years, such as Seattle, Portland and Vancouver in the annual Cascadia Cup and the Los Angeles Galaxy vs. Chivas USA (also based in Los Angeles), the league has decided to take a play out of college basketball’s playbook by creating “rivalry week,” which is scheduled to take place March 16.The chance to watch bitter rivals face off all in one day is enough to make a diehard soccer fan’s mouth water, and is sure to draw in a few casual sports fans along the way.In essence, the MLS has proved it is not about the players. After all, they will come and go.Instead, it is the fans who determine whether or not a league is successful.Now that the MLS understands that, the sky is the limit.Nick is a junior majoring in journalism and political science. Think he is wrong? MLS doesn’t stand a chance unless it brings in better talent? Let him know at email@example.com or send him a tweet @np_daniels.