Coming off of their best season to date, the Wisconsin softball team has been up to the challenge of continuing that success in the beginning of the 2013 season.
The Badgers got off to a fiery start last weekend with an appearance in the First Pitch Classic in Charlotte, N.C. UW went 4-1 with its only loss coming at the hands of the Presbyterian Blue Hose. They later revenged the lost with an 8-0 thrashing of the same team. Wisconsin’s other wins came against tournament host University of North Carolina-Charlotte and two nail-biters against Notre Dame, a 40-win team last season who was just a few votes shy of breaking the top 25.
The weekend started off with a game against Charlotte. The Badgers pounded away on the 49ers with 17 hits and 12 runs in just six innings, defeating their opponent 12-3. The team combined for a phenomenal batting average of just over .500 in their first game of the season.
In their second game, the Badgers faced off against Presbyterian, suffering their only loss of the tournament. The Badgers’ solid offensive performance rolled over into the second game, as UW out-hit the Blue Hose 11-7. But three costly defensive errors sent the Badgers reeling and unable to recover before the last out was recorded.
The tournament continued Saturday with a match-up against a formidable Notre Dame squad. A home run by Michelle Mueller in the second inning was enough scoring to hold off the Fighting Irish in a 1-0 win.
“Originally I got down in the count,” junior Michelle Mueller explained. “I knew I just had to put the ball in play. Coach always preaches when you’re down in the count, you just get the ball in play. I knew I was going to swing and I got contact on the ball and, well, it kind of worked out.”
The team’s performance was also aided by junior pitcher Cassandra Darrah, who received the title of Big Ten Pitcher of the Week. Darrah went seven innings giving up five hits and no earned runs. Despite three errors on the game, the Badgers were able to rally behind Darrah’s pitching and get out of a few innings with Notre Dame threatening to score. Darrah finished the weekend with three wins, no losses and a 0.61 ERA striking out 17.
Next, UW looked to avenge its first loss of the season to Presbyterian. After a tight deadlock through two and a half innings the Badgers got on the board in a big way. Junior Mary Massei hit a three-run home run, propelling her team to take its first and final lead. The Badgers continued to rally, putting up eight runs in just five innings. The team also seemed to address their earlier defensive woes by only giving up three hits and no errors.
The grand finale of the tournament was just that. The Badgers took on the Fighting Irish once again in an 11-inning battle. The seventh inning came and went with no scoring. But in extra innings both teams exploded offensively, each putting up two runs in the eighth and ninth frames.
“I just thought it was really exciting,” Massei said. “We were head to head with Notre Dame the entire way. Every time they scored we came back and scored. We were the comeback team.”
After a scoreless 10th for the Fighting Irish, the pressure mounted on the Badgers to score, as the team put a runner on second.
“Usually, the first batter bunts the runner over to third,” Massei explains. “But before that at bat I told coach I don’t want to bunt. I had a feeling.”
On that at bat Massei put up a two-run walk-off homer. Despite being out hit 12-4 the Badgers pulled off the 6-5 victory, ending the weekend at 4-1.
After their big opening weekend, Wisconsin sets its eyes on the daunting schedule lying ahead, including games against Stanford, Michigan, California and North Carolina. Despite the best season in Badgers’ history, the team last year still fell short of making the NCAA tournament because they lacked a signature win.
“We are really focusing on beating better teams,” head coach Yvette Healy said. “And on getting signature wins and having a strong showing when we face those top 25 teams.”
The Badgers continue their season Feb. 22 in Orlando, Fla., at the Diamond 9 Tournament, where they will face Georgia Southern and Boston University. The tournament should be exciting, as the three teams were separated by only six places in RPI rankings at the end of last season.