A 13-game winning streak over the past two weeks has drastically altered the outlook for the Wisconsin softball team.
The Badgers’ record has blown up, going from the .500 mark to nearly twice as many wins as losses (30-15, 12-5 Big Ten) and bumped UW up to fourth place in the conference, which pushes them into the top third.
While the entire team has been putting a tremendous effort forward, according to head coach Yvette Healy, one player’s name in particular has been decorating the stat sheets for UW, the Big Ten conference, and even on a national level.
And to think that four years ago she wasn’t even sure she’d be able to play the game at all.
Third baseman Michelle Mueller didn’t step foot onto the softball diamond her senior year of high school. But even though a torn ACL had the La Crosse native bench-ridden for the entire season, she still managed to be named to the all-conference first team twice, earn the Division I State Player of the Year award and set multiple team records in single-season runs, hits, doubles, home runs and RBIs that have yet to be broken.
Mueller’s impressive numbers led her to be recruiting her junior year of high school, which is why she was still able to come to Wisconsin in the fall of 2010.
But that was the same year Healy received the head coach position, worrying Mueller that the coaching switch might leave her name off the roster.
“I was nervous,” Mueller remembers of arriving at UW. “I hadn’t played softball for a year and a half, and I was unsure of myself as a player.”
Healy remembers this time period as well, and her first thoughts of the injured freshman.
“We knew she was super athletic,” Healy recalled. “Right away she jumps off the page as a kid who could run, who could hit, who could field. But she didn’t hit for power quite as much.”
It’s hard to imagine that the powerhouse who just became the first Badger to be named Louisville Slugger/NFCA Division I National Player of the Week and USA Softball National Player of the Week wasn’t the home run hitter back then that she has become.
But when looking back on her stat sheet, the then-first baseman’s main contributions to her team were mainly through hitting singles and stealing bases. Her first home run didn’t come until her sophomore year.
“I was known as a kid who hit all singles,” Mueller said. “In high school I never really had to battle to get in the lineup, but then I came here and had to really work for it. I did whatever I could to get in the lineup.”
That experience of having to earn a spot and make a name for herself from the start is one that stuck with her, as she became known over the next four years for an incredible work ethic.
“She’s someone who’s really made herself into a great player,” Healy said. “As a coach, you’re usually most proud of students who overachieve, and go father than anyone thought they could. When you have someone who maximizes their talent and gets better every year and works really hard for it like Michelle did, its really fun. She inspires people on the team.”
It’s not hard to see why Mueller would inspire people. After battling through her knee injury, spending extra hours in the gym and watching endless film, the senior is currently batting .353; leading the team in home runs with her 10 round trippers, one of which was her first career grand slam; and has 45 RBIs. She is also second in hits with 42, in doubles with 9 and total bases with 81, proving she’s anything but a kid who hits all singles.
As if accumulating these numbers throughout the season wouldn’t be enough, Mueller had a highlight-reel-worthy week against North Dakota April 9 and Illinois April 11 and 12 when she batted .600 in the two series, hitting a pair of doubles, four home runs. She also brought in a whopping 18 total RBIs and scored 5 runs herself, which is what earned her the pair of national titles.
“I remember thinking, ‘Finally the hard work has paid off,’” Mueller said of hearing she had received the two awards. “It’s heartwarming, but it’s such a shock. It’s unreal.”
No softball player could ask for more as she prepares to bring her collegiate career to a close. But after everything — all the records, awards and titles — Mueller says what she most wants to be remembered for is just that she is a homegrown Wisconsin girl.
“I play for every girl in Wisconsin who doesn’t believe she can make it this far,” Mueller said. “Any girl in the state of Wisconsin or in the Midwest can play. I want to be remembered as the girl started from the bottom and is now making an impact. I just want to inspire people. If me having the year that I’m having can get five more girls to try out for Wisconsin softball, just believing in themselves, it’s all that I want.”