After non-conference tournament trips to Florida, South Carolina, Nevada and California, the Badgers are back in the Midwest. Wisconsin (11-9) looks to open up Big Ten play on a winning note, as the team takes the road in a three game series at Iowa (10-15).
While the Badgers sit just above the .500 mark heading into the weekend set with the Hawkeyes, the team has certainly seen its fair share of worthy opponents, playing ranked opponents like South Florida and Florida State.
Playing a tougher schedule before conference play is a move Wisconsin head coach Yvette Healy hopes will pay dividends for the mental toughness of her group.
“I think we played a tougher non-conference schedule this year compared to last year,” Healy said. “Last year we definitely had more of a winning way going into Big Ten play, but this year we’ve seen better pitching, so I think we’re more prepared. I’m hoping we prepared them well for conference play from [playing a tough schedule].”
The experience Wisconsin has earned against the nation’s top pitchers like South Florida’s Sara Nevins and Florida State’s Monica Perry may come in handy when the team faces an Iowa team with a 1-2 punch of its own.
Leading the Hawkeyes on the mound is sophomore Kayla Massey. The team’s strongest returning pitcher from a year ago, Massey currently holds a 2.39 earned run average, the fifth best in the conference. Despite this stat, Massey only holds a 5-7 record through 14 appearances. Splitting time with Massey on the mound is junior Chelsea Lyon, who, besides appearing in 14 games as well, holds the conference’s sixth best ERA at 2.47 and a 5-8 record.
“We know they’re an experienced staff,” Healy said. “They’re a team that beat Michigan last year. I think they’re going to give us some great games. We had a nice game plan against them offensively last year. We didn’t chase and were able to be really aggressive when we got ahead in the count. I think we’ll keep that same strategy again. They’re good pitchers, they’re going to challenge us.”
Massey and Lyon have both been plagued by an inconsistent Iowa offense, one that hits a .250 average as a team, ranking in the bottom of the conference in 10th place. This is a good sign for the Badgers’ pitchers like Cassandra Darrah.
Darrah, a sophomore and Wisconsin’s incumbent No. 1 on the mound, currently has a 7-4 record and 2.48 ERA. While the Badgers also have a reliable, solid No. 2 in Meghan McIntosh (2-5, 2.66 ERA) the pitching staff as a whole is struggling with finishing games.
Not to be overlooked, the Badgers have been outscored 28-6 in the fifth inning of games this year, the most runs the team has given up in any inning by 14. While the Badger pitching staff has only allowed a combined 19 runs in the first four innings of the team’s 20 games this season, it has given up a combined 52 runs in the last three innings.
Needless to say, consistency will be the motto Healy drives into her players going forward into conference play.
“We’re trying to figure out if we need a closer or not,” Healy said. “We haven’t had a lot of success combing pitchers in games. Our goal is to be sharper as a staff and maybe change our game plan later in the game. We’re trying to change strategy later in the games to help our pitchers not be so predictable.”
“I think just playing a complete game from the first inning to the last out is big for us,“ freshman outfielder Maria Van Abel said. “Obviously every team in the Big Ten is really good and the competition we’re going to see is very good, but I think if we can play complete games and help each other out and keep each other positive we have a good shot at doing that.”
If the Badgers are looking for consistency, look no further than Van Abel, who leads the Big Ten with an astonishing batting average of .478. The freshman dynamo knows that if the Badgers hope to win games in Iowa, they’ll need to play the same way consistently through all seven innings.
“We just need to stay on top of opponents the whole game,” Van Abel said. “Focusing on not being really great in one inning but being great throughout. Putting pressure on the other team’s defense constantly and their offense.”