While NCAA softball is starting to heat up, one of the tops stories of the season so far has been the reemergence of Big Ten teams like Nebraska, Iowa and yes, Wisconsin.
Wisconsin has gotten off to their quickest start in history with a record of 14-3. It capped this record off last weekend with an impressive win over 16th-ranked Stanford. Stanford was handed another loss by another Big Ten opponent, Iowa. Nebraska, not to be outdone by the Badgers’ and Hawkeyes’ fiery start, pulled off a huge upset taking down top-ranked Oklahoma.
“This is the time of year that everyone cheers for the Big Ten,” coach Yvette Healy said. “As a conference, we know we have got to make some big strides after having only two teams make the NCAA tournament last year.”
Despite being a historically good softball conference, the Big Ten has lagged behind other power conferences such as the SEC, ACC and PAC 12 that have been getting increasingly competitive due to bigger facilities and longer seasons.
Not only does the revival of the Big Ten help the conference as a whole compete with other power conferences, it also gets the players excited for Big Ten play.
“It makes me excited to see Big Ten teams do well,” junior Mary Massei said. “It will be great to play them and see how we match up.”
Wisconsin’s fast start to the season comes as a result of impressive batting and pitching. The team, led by Massei, is batting .328 and slugging just less than .500. Despite a batting average of .492, Massei is quick to praise the pitching staff that is boasting a 1.56 ERA and is limiting opponents’ batting average of .228.
“One of the key factors of our success is our pitching,” Massei said. “They have been dominating. Cassandra Darrah is pitching amazing and Taylor (Stewart) was freshman of the week last week.”
Even with their dominating offense and pitching, the team is still looking to improve on defense and keep the errors to a minimum. The team has committed 20 errors so far this season, costing them 12 runs in the process, something Healy admits needs drastic change.
The Badgers look to continue their dominant offensive and pitching performances this weekend in Illinois. In this tournament they will face Southern Illinois, Belmont, Eastern Kentucky and UIC. This will be the Wisconsin’s first real look at Midwestern teams this season, and the team is excited for the opportunity.
“These next two weeks will tell us a lot.” Healy said. “We see some great regional opponents this weekend and so it will show us how we match up against opponents in the Midwest.”
The feel of the games will be slightly different however. These regional opponents don’t get the same kind of national attention as the Badgers opponents last week do. However, the Badgers are coming into the game prepared and excited to show what they have.
“I try not to have any different mindset,” pitcher Cassandra Darrah said. “I try to contribute as much as I can to the team to help us play well and hopefully win.”
The teams Wisconsin is playing this weekend have a combined record of 18-27 but have big wins against teams like Georgia Southern and No. 18 Southern Florida. The Badgers will have to keep up their tough play in order to come out of the weekend undefeated.
Despite the team’s focus on this week’s tournament in Illinois, the recent success has caused hopes of an NCAA tournament bid to skyrocket. However many have reserves about such hopes remain after being passed up last year for a spot because of lack of signature wins.
“It really hurt us last year,” Massei said. “We all really wanted it. I think it gives us the drive and passion we need, and we all really want to get it done this year.”
The numbers on the season so far are quite high and for the most part will go down (barring a MVP-like season from Massei by keeping up a .500 batting average). Healy thinks it will be a challenge however she seems confident that the team can continue to put up big numbers on both sides of the ball.
“I really think we can keep it up,” Darrah added. “We will always have our ups and downs like everyone else does but we will be able to remain consistent throughout the year.”
Though the Badgers are yet to break the top-25 rankings, the team doesn’t seem to focus on it. They know where they stand among those they have played; their record says it all.
“When we continue to do it and get it done,” Massei said with a slight smile. “We will see where we stand.”