When Maria Van Abel sat down at the Wisconsin senior All-Star Banquet in the spring of 2011, the then-high school senior was planning on playing volleyball, not softball, at the collegiate level.
But that all changed when Wisconsin softball head coach Yvette Healy made the keynote speech of the night.
“It was her idea about hard work paying off and having a positive attitude,” Van Abel said. “Everything she was saying was everything I wanted to see in a coach. She had that; she presented herself in such a great way that I was drawn to her.”
While Healy was giving her speech that night, something began to stir inside the high school senior. She began to picture herself being coached by Healy, as well as the opportunities playing softball at a place like Wisconsin would give her.
“I sat there listening to her talk and I was thinking to myself how great it would be to play at a level like that for that kind of coach who’s so energetic and so positive,” Van Abel said. “It kind of gave me a notion to go introduce myself. Something came inside of me and I just wanted to throw my name out there.”
Healy had heard of Van Abel before she actually met her that night. A two-sport standout at Kaukauna High School, Van Abel won state championships in both her respective sports during her career for the Galloping Ghosts.
“Multiple people mentioned her name,” Healy said. “They said that one of the best players in the state for softball was going to play volleyball. I had a chance to speak and do the keynote speech and she came up to me and we spoke afterwards.”
Whatever was said that night, Van Abel left a lasting impression on Wisconsin’s head coach.
“You could just tell right away that she was just one of those kids you knew was going to be successful in whatever she did,” Healy said. “It really looked like her goals matched up with what we wanted to build here, so it’s kind of special when you meet a person like that who’s that driven and motivated.”
After a great first impression, the two exchanged phone calls and Healy was able to bring Van Abel to the Wisconsin campus for a tour just a week after their first meeting.
“I came down for a visit the next week and I changed my mind,” Van Abel said. “I can’t say enough about the facilities, the staff, everyone was so awesome. It was an opportunity I would’ve had to be crazy to turn down.”
It turns out the decision was the right one. After 23 games in a Wisconsin uniform, the freshman outfielder leads not only the Badgers but the entire Big Ten in batting, with an average of .455 with 25 hits in 55 at-bats.
“It’s crazy,” senior Karla Powell said. “I remember when she first got here. I was wondering what this speedy little girl was going to bring to the table. When we got to Florida and first started playing and I could just tell she was going to make noise this year. She has the potential to be an All-American very soon, maybe even this year.”
But Van Abel’s success early in her Wisconsin career didn’t come without hard work. There were times this past fall when the freshman struggled to make contact at all.
“There were a lot of those days,” Van Abel said, laughing. “There were definitely bad days. Coming in as that walk-on position you’re not exactly sold if you’re at the right level or capability to be here. You don’t know that as a freshman walk-on. There were days when it was pretty frustrating. I went through some frustrating times in the winter because I knew I could do better than what I was doing.”
However, the Badger standout was able to get through the tough times with the encouragement and positive energy of her teammates, her family and the Wisconsin coaching staff. She also earned the respect of her fellow teammates and coaches, putting in the extra work needed to find her game before the season started.
“She’s just a hard worker,” Healy said. “Everything about her successes is due to her and her work ethic, because in the fall and winter she struggled. There were days she couldn’t hit the ball. She put in the extra time and didn’t get flustered. To be the leading hitter in the Big Ten is beyond what any kid dreams about. To put this run together like she is, we’re really proud of her.”
“I was pretty blindfolded coming into the whole experience,” Van Abel said. “I didn’t know what to expect. To turn around in less than a month from volleyball to softball, from a small school to a huge school, there were a lot of transitions that needed to be made. Now that I’m here, I’m blessed to have this opportunity. I’m just going to keep working hard and see where it takes me.”