The Wisconsin softball team received a big boost Sunday afternoon, as Karla Powell — the team’s only senior — made the start at the designated player position. The game marked only the 13th time in the 40 games this season that the senior cracked the Badger starting lineup, as nagging injuries have so far limited the senior’s role on the team.
Powell, who was named First Team All-Big Ten just a season ago, took a big step towards getting back to form, going 1-for-1 from the plate Sunday with an RBI single in the first inning and a walk in the Badgers (27-13, 10-4 Big Ten) 9-0 slaughter of the Nittany Lions (13-26, 5-10 Big Ten).
“It felt great,” Powell said of her return. “It’s been a long process fighting through injuries. I’ve just been working on my swing as much as possible. I’m still fighting through pain, but it’s my senior year; we have a goal in mind to get to the NCAA’s. If I’m in the lineup, great; if I’m not it’s whatever, just as long as we make it to our goal, that’s the big picture.”
It’s been a rough road for Powell in her return. During her junior season in 2011, the Badgers’ first baseman made it look easy, starting all 53 of the Badgers games while recording a .313 batting average 10 doubles, nine home runs and 31 RBI’s.
However, Powell’s injuries have indeed been showing their effects on her swing. Coming into Sunday, Powell had only managed 41 at-bats in the Badgers previous 39 games, recording just a .195 average with eight hits.
Offensively, the Badgers have found a way to make up for Powell’s limited role. The Badgers currently have seven players in their starting lineup with a batting average over .300, as the team is one of the top hitting clubs in the entire Big Ten.
But this weekend’s series with Penn State may have been a sign that Powell is on her way to add one more top-tier hitter to the Wisconsin lineup. Powell made five plate appearances in the Badgers’ three games with the Nittany Lions this weekend, going 2-for-2 at the plate with a single, a double, three walks and two RBI’s.
“It’s great to have her back,” Healy said. “She’s given us a little boost and has some power. She’s seeing the ball well. She’s been getting on base all year, but for her to come through with some big hits and RBI’s this weekend is great for her confidence and the team’s.”
In control of their own destiny
Wisconsin now finds itself in a unique position after their three-game sweep of Penn State. With a 10-4 record in conference play, Wisconsin has now moved into a tie for second place in the Big Ten standings, as the team has won eight of its last nine conference contests including four straight.
“I think it just shows how much hard work pays off,” sophomore Mary Massei said. “We’re all just confident and having fun right now. We know our strengths, and we’re trying to get it done.”
While the Badgers entered Sunday tied for third place in the Big Ten with Nebraska, Ohio State was able to defeat the Cornhuskers 4-1 Sunday, dropping them to fourth place in the standings with a 10-5 record in league play.
The Badgers also received plenty of help in their quest for the program’s first-ever Big Ten title from Minnesota and Illinois. Minnesota gave first-place Michigan all it could handle this weekend, as the Gophers were able to take two out of three from the Wolverines, dropping Michigan to an 11-3 record in conference play.
Purdue, the second-place team in the conference going into the weekend, also faltered away from home, falling twice to Illinois to drop their conference record to 10-4, moving them into a tie with Wisconsin for second place.
The Badgers are now in a position in the conference where they control their own destiny. With all of their remaining conference games against the other top three teams in the league — Michigan, Purdue and Nebraska — Wisconsin’s fate in the hunt for the Big Ten title remains solely in its own hands with just nine Big Ten contests left
”I think this is where we want to be,” Healy said. “It’s about the Big Ten race and it’s about the NCAA tournament. We definitely have the hardest road ahead, I think, compared to anybody, and that’s right where you want to be. I think we’re going to have to play our best softball late. To see Purdue, Nebraska and Michigan late, with two of those series on the road, it’ll be a good test.”