It’s crunch time for the Wisconsin softball team and head coach Yvette Healy.
At the halfway point of the Big Ten season, the Badgers have 10 Big Ten games remaining to solidify their record. With hopes for an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament in June, Wisconsin (23-18, 3-7) will welcome Illinois (19-17, 6-4) to Goodman Diamond for an important weekend series.
With Wisconsin’s next eight conference games coming against the Big Ten’s top five teams, Healy knows the task ahead for Wisconsin will be difficult.
“The Big Ten is way better this year than it was last year,” Healy said. “From an RPI standpoint as a conference it’s doing great, which makes every game a lot tougher. I’m happy from what I’ve seen so far, I’m proud of the Big Ten for how tough it is.”
Healy is also pleased of her young team’s success thus far in her inaugural season as head coach.
“I’m pleased with where we’re at,” Healy said. “I’d like to keep getting some wins here but I think the girls have been giving us a lot and we’re getting a lot from them.”
After two tough series against great pitchers in Minnesota’s Sara Moulton and Indiana’s Morgan Melloh, the Badgers hope their recent experiences against tough pitching will prove fruitful for its offense against Illinois.
“It really helps a lot, facing pitching like that,” senior Jennifer Krueger said. “The way the ball comes off Illinois’ hands will probably be a lot different and hopefully easier to track and hit.”
Illinois’ probable starter for Saturday’s matchup will be sophomore Pepper Gay. While Gay currently allows a little more than three runs per game, she shouldn’t be taken lightly. As a freshman, the Illini pitcher posted a 16-1 record and a 1.46 ERA.
“I hope that we have a good, aggressive offense approach,” Healy said. “Illinois has one of the best offenses in the country. It’s fun to play teams like that because you learn from them. I hope watching how aggressive they are will rub off on the team.”
Aggressive indeed, the Illini average a team batting average of .296 with four players having .300-plus averages. But Illinois’ rock lies in their leadoff hitter, senior Danielle Zymkowitz.
Zymkowitz currently holds a .409 batting average, the seventh-best in the Big Ten. Illinois’ leadoff hitter has also scored 42 run this season, the second-best total in the conference. If Wisconsin wants to limit the Illinois offense, it will have to prevent Zymkowitz from reaching first base the entire series.
“I think Zymkowitz is the best leadoff hitter in the conference,” Healy said. “She’s a kid who’s really fun to watch, she really runs the bases well. We’ll have to keep her off the bases. She’ll cause a lot of havoc. We’ll have to limit her like we limited Minnesota’s leadoff hitter on Wednesday.”
The Badgers are still getting used to having a completely healthy lineup. If the Badgers hope to keep pace with the red-hot Illini bats, the Wisconsin freshmen will need to continue their success. With the Badgers adjusting their lineup with the return of freshmen Michelle Mueller and Mary Massei, Wisconsin will continue to lean on the familiar bats of freshmen Krueger and Stephanie Peace.
“I’m comfortable wherever I end up in the order,” Peace said. “I’m just in there to help the team anyway I can. I try to get better everyday. We expect our team to improve every game. Against Illinois, we just need our offense to play our game and do the little things right.”
“There’s a ton of potential with these freshmen,” Krueger said. “Before Mary and Michelle got hurt they were a big part of the offense. Having them back is great; we shouldn’t rely on them completely, but it obviously helps.”
The Badgers also gained considerable depth with the injuries. With other players filling in for the injured freshmen, more Badgers played in the field and gained considerable experience that will only help down the road.
“In their absence we still did a good job,” Healy said. “They both bring a nice spark for us with their ability to get game-changing hits. We’re looking for big things, but it still isn’t going to be easy. Illinois has some good pitchers, they’ve gotten some big wins this year, so we aren’t taking anything for granted. I’m proud of the way we’ve responded to adversity this season.”