After the most disappointing weekend of the season for the Wisconsin Badgers softball team — a weekend where the Badgers were swept by both Illinois and Iowa and fell out of contention for a berth in the Big Ten tournament — UW is trying to recover for the final week of the season and hoping to play well to give itself momentum and confidence for next year.
The Badgers finish up the season with a game on the road Thursday against the University of Illinois-Chicago and a two-game series with rival Minnesota Golden Gophers on Saturday and Sunday.
Although there is nothing truly on the line for the team in its final week of play, Wisconsin is still taking the final week very seriously. The Badgers head into the last three games of the 2004 campaign looking to end the season on a positive note and give both themselves and their fans something to look forward to for next season.
“This is a big week for us,” head coach Karen Gallagher said. “I think when you are ending your season, you always want to end on a high note. You want to play well, perform well, especially at home in front of your fans, getting them excited for next year to come. That is certainly what I am trying to focus on this week.”
Wisconsin started off the Big Ten season 0-3 before winning four of its next seven matches to move up in the conference standings and improve its position for the Big Ten championship. However, down the stretch Wisconsin has stumbled, losing its last six Big Ten match-ups.
Wisconsin’s sudden free-fall at the end of the conference season was predicated by an offense that went ice cold. In their last six Big Ten games, the Badgers scored a total of only one run, being shut out five times.
“Potentially, I thought we would do a little bit better this year. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. I think this last three weeks, the offensive slumping, has really, really hurt our team. We needed some big wins these last two weekends and we didn’t get them,” Gallagher said. “You have to put runs on the board for our pitching staff, and we just didn’t do it. We didn’t take advantage of opportunities with runners in scoring position. We didn’t execute.”
The youthfulness of the team — which only loses four-year starter Diana Consolmagno to graduation — could be part of the reason for the Badgers’ late-season collapse. Many of the young players had to deal with the pressure of the Big Ten season for the first time.
“I don’t know if it was just a long season or a young team, but you can look back at several things,” Gallagher explained. “We made some key errors defensively when we really needed to be flawless, so I think it really comes down to dealing with pressure. You look at that and it could be young mistakes, but the bottom line is at this point of the season, you don’t want to be making those mistakes. Hopefully they learn from [their mistakes] and become better ballplayers.”
Although inexperience hurt the team this season, the fact that so many young players got extensive playing time for UW bodes well for the future. Many freshmen — Eden Brock, Sam Polito, Stephanie Chinn, Tara Hamilton and Athena Vasquez — contributed to the Badgers’ success this season. Sophomore infielders Kaitlin Reiss and Emily Friedman and sophomore pitcher Sara Gonzales were also major contributors for the Badgers.
“I have been really, really very happy with the young group of athletes. I like the attitude of this team — that was the one thing I really, really liked about them. They had a lot of character. They played hard. They never gave up,” Gallagher said. “With having 10 freshmen on the team, this season was a growing, transitional year. I think we are going to do the little things that we didn’t do this year, next year, and at a much higher level.”
“I guess what I am focusing on right now is that I am very excited about the prospects for our upcoming season next year,” she continued. “When you have five starting freshmen in your line-up, that is kind of an exciting viewpoint to see where your team is going.”
The young core of the Badgers will all be back, including the junior offensive leaders Kris Zacher and Boo Gillette, to give Wisconsin a much more experienced and formidable team next season.
“I think we have a real mature group of young women that want to win. We have a lot of our leadership coming back. We have the core of our team coming back. We only lose one senior, so in terms of their approach, I think we are going to come out with a totally different attitude,” Gallagher said. “They are winners. I know they are winners, and I think we will definitely be a team to be reckoned with next year.”
The youth movement that has shaken up the Badgers’ lineup is reason for Wisconsin fans to be excited. With the improvement of the line-up and the loss of only one starter, the Badgers look poised to not only make the Big Ten tournament next year, but to make some noise in it.