Toward the beginning of the Big Ten schedule, senior pitcher Andrea Kirchberg said that this year’s Wisconsin softball team was perhaps the most talented she had played on in her notable UW career. After all, the team, which has only existed since 1996, managed to beat No. 15 Fresno State and No. 23 Oregon State within the first five games of the season. And two close losses against No. 6 Oklahoma further validated the Badgers talent.
“I really like this team,” head coach Karen Gallagher said before the season got underway. “This is probably the best team we’ve ever had at UW in terms of talent and potential.”
But like a kite on a windless day, the team never really got off the ground. They limped into the Big Ten season at just 11-12 and quickly dropped four games on the road to Iowa and Purdue. Yet after a sweep of Indiana in Bloomington brought their Big Ten record to 2-4, the Badgers were confident that their return home to Goodman Diamond would put them on a prolonged hot streak.
Instead, their bats went as cold as a greedy man’s heart. In one forgettable weekend, the Badgers managed to squeeze out just two runs and nine hits in a four-game sweep at the hands of Michigan and Michigan State.
The following weekend, however, their bats came alive. Sophomore shortstop Kris Zacher drilled a two-out, two-run homer in the top of the ninth to give Wisconsin 4-2 victory in extra innings April 18 at Northwestern. The bats stayed hot, as the Badgers belted four more homers that weekend in a Saturday tilt at Northwestern and a Sunday double-header at Illinois.
But as the hitting came, the pitching went. Wisconsin dropped those games 6-5, 5-4 and 4-2, respectively. Particularly painful was the 5-4 loss to Illinois, as Kirchberg, who was vastly disappointed after the game, surrendered a two-out solo home run in the bottom-of-the-seventh after the Badgers had rallied to tie the game at four. And after the loss in the second game of the double-header, Wisconsin stood at 3-11 in the Big Ten (14-23 overall), basically without hope of a Big Ten tournament berth.
The situation, however, was yet to bottom-out. After a contest at UW-Green Bay was cancelled due to rain, the Badgers returned home for a Friday evening tilt against Penn State April 25. Wisconsin put on an embarrassing display, notching just one hit in a 7-0 thrashing by the mediocre Nittany Lions. Afterwards, coach Gallagher turned into Bob Knight, launching into a 15-minute tirade as her players stared forlornly at the left field grass.
To the players’ credit, they took the talk to heart and decided that folding wasn’t an option. They followed with a win over Penn State the next day and swept Ohio State in a double-header the day after. The success came largely as a result of Gallagher’s line-up changes. Sophomore catcher Boo Gillette, who led the team with a .296 average, was moved to the nine slot to provide hitting at the bottom of the order, while sophomore Anna Miller, who finished the season with three home runs and an unbelievable .762 slugging percentage, finally pushed her way permanently into the line-up as a designated hitter.
And last Sunday, the Badgers put an admirable finish to an otherwise disappointing season. Miller scored junior Meghan Reiss in the 12th inning with a game-winning hit to the wall in right-center, giving the Badgers a dramatic 3-2 win over Minnesota. The hit gave Kirchberg, who pitched all 12 innings and who holds virtually every pitching record in UW softball history, a victory in her final performance as a Badger. The fact that Wisconsin finished 19-26 (7-13 Big Ten) on the year didn’t seem to matter.
The biggest shoes to fill next season will be Kirchberg’s, but the Badgers hope Katie Layne and Sara Gonzales, who sat out for academic reasons this year, can partly do so. Otherwise, only two other seniors, outfielders Erin Barnharst and Mandy Liles, are leaving. Wisconsin will return an entire infield — Gillette, Meghann and Kaitlin Reiss, Zacher and Emily Friedman — that gained a lot of momentum toward the end of this season.
So don’t be surprised to hear Gallagher praise the talent of her team before the start of next season. Their task this time, however, will be to back it up.