They say Shanel Blackshear is loud and somewhat goofy. They say Stephanie Peace can inspire her teammates with a simple flick of her glove. They say Whitney Massey doesn’t say too much, or talk too loudly, but she doesn’t need to; her bat speaks much louder. They say Michelle Mueller has a cannon for an arm.
They say a lot of things.
And although the things they say may seem different in most aspects, in the end they, as a group, are all the same: starting infielders for the Wisconsin softball team. They’re pretty good too.
“It is unique when you get this much returning experience,” head coach Yvette Healy said with an excited smile on her face before Tuesday’s practice in the McClain Facility.
The Badgers may have been practicing indoors, and it may still be January, but you wouldn’t know it by talking to the ever-anxious head coach entering her third season.
She will gladly welcome the “unique” situation presented to her with an entire infield returning from last year, and although the players will return, the positions may change, if ever so slightly.
Peace and Massey, the pair up the middle, will not be changing at all. It’s ho-hum for the returning shortstop and second baseman.
Blackshear and Mueller, however, will likely swap positions. Blackshear, last year’s third baseman, spent much of the offseason battling the pains of knee surgery before just recently being cleared to fully participate. Mueller, last season’s first baseman, will now cross the diamond toward third.
Healy noted the two corner infielders could switch again as the 2013 season progresses, but until Blackshear is fully comfortable with her knee, her spot will be at first.
Most programs couldn’t fathom the option of moving a third baseman to first base. The Badgers, however, can seem to do whatever they please with their pair of talented corner infielders.
“Shannel [Blackshear] has probably one of the best gloves on our team,” Massey said, a noteworthy trait for first basemen.
“Michelle [Mueller], she’s got a gun of an arm,” Healy echoed, a noteworthy trait for a third baseman.
The move almost seems perfect, though the results remain to be seen.
Between the bases, it’s the same old story of Peace and Massey, a story that frustrated opponents throughout all of 2012.
Massey led the Badgers in hitting last season, batting .358 en route to a first team All-Big Ten selection as a junior. Her five errors were the fewest of the experienced infield group. The well-rounded middle infielder spends a lot of time near second base thanks to her bat, much more than your typical second baseman.
Her 22 doubles led the conference and inked her name in the record books as the best-ever season total for a Badger. Naturally, she wears No. 2 on the back of her jersey.
Deuces remain wild for the Badgers as Peace, Massey’s running mate up the middle, calls No. 22 her own. Not as well known for her hitting, Peace makes up for any lacking offense with her extravagant defensive prowess.
“She makes a lot of inspirational plays,” Healy said of the junior shortstop. “She’s the type of kid that makes plays catching it off one foot, diving and gets the team going that way.”
As a group, the Badgers’ infielders are as consistent as can be. Each member of the group started at least 48 games last season out of a possible 53. Massey started them all, Peace missed just one and Blackshear only two.
Through the amount of games they’ve played together, a special bond formed in protecting the dirt and keeping runs off the scoreboard. Their proximity on the field keeps them rather close, but their interaction, as slight as ever, keeps them even closer.
“It’s just our chemistry on the field,” Massey said of what she’s looking forward to in 2013. “We all have little phrases that we say to each other, it’s just the feeling, I guess, of having played together for about three years now.”
And in between them all will be pitchers Cassandra Darrah and Meghan McIntosh, both also returning from last season.
Each of them coming off sub-3 ERA seasons, Wisconsin’s set of slingers certainly appreciates the players that can cover the ground behind them. Each defender finished 2012 with a fielding percentage of at least .921 with Massey and Mueller at .976 and .978, respectively.
And while they may do a good job making the pitchers look good, having familiar faces toeing the rubber does a lot for the infielders as well.
“It’s just a comfort thing,” Peace said. “Just knowing what their strengths and weaknesses are as pitchers, and where they’ll be in coverages … it’s a lot of fun to play behind them.”
These infielders were comfortable in 2012. They were comfortable setting countless records and comfortable leading the Badgers to match a program-best 34 wins.
With the same crew of infielders back again and with another year of experience, comfortable could take on a far greater meaning in 2013.