BY ANDY BAGGOT
MADISON, Wis. — Isaac Schlenker has a gift for mathematics, so it seems appropriate that his career with the Wisconsin men’s soccer team has defied the longest of odds.
It started with an email, asking a major-college coaching staff for a tryout.
It continued with an audition and invitation to walk on.
It evolved into a starting role.
It grew into a scholarship and an appointment to be a captain.
It endured through a unique opportunity to turn pro.
It survived a violent brush with death.
What are the odds, indeed?
Schlenker, an award-winning math and business major, noted that 98 percent of all high school soccer players in the United States don’t play NCAA Division I.
“So those are the numeric odds,” he said.
But Schlenker, a fifth-year senior from Milwaukee, hasn’t taken time to dissect the rest of the story problem.
“I just try my best and try my luck and see what happens,” he said.
No matter how you plot this equation, it’s a notable upset that Schlenker is around to oversee the Badgers this season as their only senior.
He could have graduated after the last academic year and done so in triumph having helped Wisconsin to the Big Ten Conference tournament title. Schlenker converted one of the penalty kicks that helped provide a 4-2 victory over perennial powerhouse Indiana after the teams had battled to a scoreless tie in regulation and overtime.
Some of his best friends in the world were seniors and no one would have batted an eye had Schlenker joined them in their post-college endeavors. A two-time Academic All-Big Ten pick, owner of a 3.7 grade-point average, he would have had a variety of employment options in the financial world and lucrative ones at that.
Instead, Schlenker not only elected to come back to oversee a club with 17 underclassmen — including 10 freshmen — he asked Wisconsin coach John Trask to take his scholarship money and invest it elsewhere on the roster.
“I love playing soccer,” Schlenker explained, “and I knew that if I left to take some job after four years and looked back five years from now, I’d be like, ‘Damn, I wish I’d played soccer as long as I could.'”
Schlenker, 22, said being a leader was important to him, that he felt he could make an impact on the field and that he wanted to help fortify the culture of a program that’s working to establish high-level consistency.
The Big Ten Tournament triumph was just the second in program history. The other was in 1995.
The subsequent NCAA tournament berth was just the seventh dating back to 1981 and the first since 2013.
Schlenker decided to come back to the Badgers even though he could be maximizing his mathematical gifts elsewhere.
“I definitely had opportunities to work at investment banks and go that route and jump into life and my career,” he said. “But I think this is more important for my life and my career, staying here.”
“Happiness,” he said after a long pause. “I’m really about living in the moment, as corny as that is. I want to enjoy my time and live without regrets.”
Besides, being an elected leader for the Badgers and being part of a Division I program is a big deal to Schlenker.
“It’s an honor, really,” he said.
🏈You better believe we’re going to be back in full-force on Friday. #TuneIn #BelieveInBucky
— Wisconsin Soccer (@BadgerMSoccer) September 17, 2018
Schlenker, the youngest of three grown children, said his parents, Sue and Todd, embraced his decision to return to school.
“We know that the legacy of the team is important to him,” Sue said. “I think he’d really like to lead the team this year so they keep growing and continue to participate in Big Ten championships and the NCAA tournament.”
Schlenker played prep soccer at Milwaukee University School, where he a three-time first-team all-conference pick and Midwest Classic Conference Player of the Year after scoring 37 goals as a senior.
Schlenker enhanced his game playing club soccer for the Milwaukee Bavarians, experiencing state titles at the under-13, under-14 and under-18 levels.
According to his mother, Schlenker had offers to play soccer at smaller schools, but he reached out to Wisconsin coaches via email and they responded by watching him play for the Bavarians before granting him a tryout.
The email, dated three days before Christmas Day 2013, explained that Schlenker had been accepted into school at Wisconsin and outlined his desire to walk on to the soccer program.
“I believe I have the skill, work ethic and character to play at the next level,” he wrote.
“I have been working extremely hard the past few years and I think if I continue to work hard and familiarize myself with the coaching staff and players, I will be a great contributor to your program. Please let me know how I can best prepare myself for success at UW.”
Trask said Schlenker, a center forward at the time, impressed him with his technical ability and range as an attacking option. That led to an invitation to Schlenker to walk on.
“We saw something in him,” Trask said.
“He’s a kid with a lot of initiative,” Sue Schlenker said of her son.
The opportunity unfolded slowly. Schlenker played 14 matches in 2015 and 16 the following season. He had a goal in both campaigns.
He appeared in all 22 matches last year, moving to right back to help solidify a defense that registered eight shutouts and set the stage for a run to the NCAA Sweet 16.
“There wasn’t a turn of events,” Schlenker said of his progress. “It was very gradual and natural.”
Sue Schlenker said her son has always loved board games and competing with his sister Claire, 30, and brother Henry, 25.
“He’s always been really good with puzzles and playing chess and I think that translates to how he plays soccer as well,” she said. “He has this very analytical mind, looking two or three steps ahead.”
Once Schlenker was inserted in the starting lineup for the Badgers, there was no looking back.
Schlenker said his selection as captain grew from his competitiveness and his relationship with teammates.
“They know where I’ve come from,” he said. “They know it was a humble path for me throughout the whole process, so I kind of earned the coaches’ respect and the players’ respect, one by one.”
Said Trask: “He’s a total team guy.”
“Pac the Mac” was a last blast yesterday! ⚽️ Thanks to everyone who came out to support @BadgerMSoccer.
— Wisconsin On BTN (@WisconsinOnBTN) September 17, 2018
Mitch Guitar, a junior midfielder from Royal Oak, Michigan, marveled at the longshot journey of his captain.
“The odds of getting on the team after just walking on are slim,” Guitar said. “It’s just a testament to him, his character. He just puts his head down and goes to work every day.
“You have to prove yourself day in and day out to get the respect of everybody. He’s not afraid to be vocal off the field. He’ll keep guys in check if he needs to.
“Everything’s about the team.”
Schlenker said an added benefit to coming back to school was it allowed him to focus more on another passion. He works part-time as an analyst and researcher for an investment start-up called Scow Capital, a cryptocurrency hedge fund he helped launch with three friends.
The first month’s performance, Schlenker said with a grin, “went really well.”
A frightening incident this summer also gave Schlenker a greater appreciation for his direction in life.
He was in Chicago, playing for FC United in the Player Development League. He was walking alone to his car when he was attacked on the Loyola University campus.
“I got hit from behind and I blacked out,” Schlenker said.
Strangers found him a few blocks away from where he was jumped, crawling with his backpack on, blood gushing from a wound over his left eye.
Schlenker was hospitalized overnight. He received stitches and was diagnosed with a concussion.
The assailants took his cell phone, but not his backpack, which had his laptop computer, nor his car, apparently because it’s a stick shift.
“It was a reminder to be grateful,” Schlenker said. “It could have been a lot worse. I could have died easily. I could have long-term brain damage.”
Sue Schlenker said her son shared an important perspective with her upon arriving at the hospital.
“He said, ‘I wonder why people would do this to someone else. I actually really feel sorry for them,'” she recounted.
“That’s a different perspective than the one I was having at that time. He taught me a thing or two.”
As expected, the Badgers (2-4-1 overall, 0-1 in the Big Ten) are having some growing pains this season. They opened league play with a 3-1 loss to Indiana, the 12-time Big Ten and 15-time NCAA finalist, and follow that up with a trip to play three-time national champion Maryland on Friday.
“It’s a matter of how quickly we can gain experience and mature,” Schlenker said. “It’s a work in progress. It’s not where we need it to be, but we’re making progress.”
Of course, this is what Schlenker signed up for.
“I wonder if I was in the same spot what I’d do,” Guitar mused. “It’s pretty impressive.”
One thing’s for certain about Schlenker.
“He wants to be here,” Guitar said.