The time is now for Wisconsin softball.
With the weather Tuesday afternoon feeling more like spring than the middle of January, it seems fitting the beginning of the season for the Badgers is just around the corner.
Already practicing in preparation for their opening tournament, the University of North Carolina Tournament, Feb. 8 in Charlotte, N.C., expectations surrounding the program have never been higher.
“We expect ourselves to do even better than last year,” senior captain and third baseman Shannel Blackshear said. “Every year we’ve raised the bar a little bit.”
And there’s no reason Blackshear should believe anything different. The Badgers are returning every starter from last year’s record-setting team in 2012, giving the group high hopes this is the year they reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005.
Building on a strong frame
When Wisconsin head coach Yvette Healy took over the program in 2011, she inherited one of the youngest teams in all of college softball.
But Healy and her staff mentored the team to success, as UW won 30 games for the first time since 2005 in her inaugural season at the helm.
Yet there were brighter days down the road for Wisconsin just a year later, as the team posted the best record (34-19) in program history in 2012 while also shattering program records for team batting average, runs and RBIs.
But the wins were all for naught, as Wisconsin lost their last two games of the conference schedule, sliding them from a potential second place finish to a tie for sixth in the conference, as the NCAA tournament selection committee chose just two teams from the Big Ten for postseason play.
Highlighting the returning players, UW brings back two 2012 first team All-Big Ten performers in senior utility player Whitney Massey and senior outfielder Kendall Grimm. Massey shattered the Wisconsin single-season doubles record last year with 22 and Grimm clobbered the Big Ten with a .407 batting average in league play, good for fourth best in the conference.
Rounding out the returning award winners for Wisconsin is junior pitcher Cassandra Darrah. Named second team All-Big Ten in 2012, Darrah posted a 22-13 record and 2.27 ERA (the fifth best in the Big Ten) as just a sophomore.
Healy will hope Darrah and No. 2 pitcher senior Meghan McIntosh will not only show the dominance they showcased in the fall — Darrah threw a perfect game and McIntosh threw a no-hitter — but that they take on a new leadership role.
“The team did voting for captains and they wanted to see the pitchers in that role,” Healy said. “They’re just two of the nicest kids. We’re getting on them to be a little meaner.”
Healthy Spence ready for 2013
Wisconsin will add another lethal bat to its lineup in 2013, as senior Molly Spence is once again set to return from injury.
Spence, who missed all of the 2011 season and was limited to just 28 games last year due to injury, still provided a bang with 23 RBIs and a Wisconsin single season high of seven home runs.
Spence, who was the Offensive MVP for the Badgers in 2010 as a freshman, could be the catalyst that sends an already deep offensive Wisconsin team to postseason play.
“I’m very excited to finally be back and practicing and playing with the team to my full ability,” Spence said. “It’s a breath of fresh air.”
Spence, who said her biggest individual goal remains to just stay healthy for an entire season, should take solace in knowing that her teammates are more than capable of picking up the slack if she does miss any games this season.
“She’ll give us a burst of power, which is exciting,” Healy said. “It’s a bonus when [the injury] gets better. That’s the way we’re looking at it, we’re hoping to get her in the lineup but we have a solid core around her. We’re a balanced team.”
New depth initiates competition
With just her second recruiting class ever as the head coach, Healy has sprinkled seven freshmen among the ranks of the Badgers’ roster.
And with at least one of those new faces poised to contribute in a big way for Wisconsin, Healy’s team has depth throughout the roster that was severely lacking in her previous two years.
In Healy’s mind, the added competition breeds excellence.
“I don’t think we’ve had this kind of depth before where truly you have people at multiple positions that could vie for the starting spot,” Healy said. “And that’s a whole different feel for the program. This group has never felt what it was like to say ‘get it done or someone’s behind you and they’re right on your heels.’”
Healy will get plenty of chances to see what she has for talent in her new players and to find her starting lineup before the beginning of conference play, thanks to the team’s toughest nonconference slate in recent memory.
The Badgers’ schedule includes No. 26 Notre Dame, No. 21 Stanford, No. 3 California, No. 22 North Carolina and No. 18 Louisville before finally starting Big Ten play at Illinois Mar. 23.
With such a tough road in front of them, Healy and her players know it’s a matter of taking it one game at a time. But, for a program that has never finished higher than fourth in the conference standings, there are a few players who are looking at the big picture.
“I think we have a great shot to win the Big Ten,” Blackshear said. “We have a great schedule and lineup, it’s being put in our hands and it’s up to us to finish it.”