When a new coach is brought in to turn around a program, most people can only expect gradual changes in the first year of new leadership.
Head coach Yvette Healy and her staff are not only rapidly changing the Wisconsin softball program, but they are also winning at a rapid pace. With the Badgers winning their last nine of 11 games while matching a school record of eight wins in a row, Healy’s philosophy of toughness has already begun to pay dividends as the Badgers enter league play.
When Wisconsin (15-9) heads to Penn State (13-11) this weekend, that mindset will once again be tested.
“It’s fun so far, the girls are having a good time, they’re playing hard and buying into the philosophy,” Healy said. “We’ve got some really hard games ahead of us, but these wins give us good momentum.”
So far, it’s been easy for UW’s players to buy in to Healy’s system.
“The coaches are amazing; we’re all so happy with this big turnaround,” junior Karla Powell said. “They know when to have fun, when to be serious and they’re always willing to help you individually. Everything has been so positive throughout this season.”
While the Badgers have flourished under the new coaching, they are receiving terrific contributions from their starting pitching staff. The Badgers are receiving consistently solid outings from sophomore Meghan McIntosh, who after getting off to a 2-6 start has bounced back to a 3-1 record in her last four decisions. But perhaps the biggest surprise for the Badgers has been freshman pitcher Cassandra Darrah. Darrah has rarely missed a beat in her inaugural campaign, turning out a 10-1 record and a 1.79 ERA.
“That’s unbelievable as a freshman; we had high expectations but she’s surpassed them,” Healy said. “She’s very athletic but raw, and our pitching coach has done a phenomenal job with her. She has a terrific feel for the game, and she will continue to have a great season.”
“That’s extremely important to have two great pitchers,” senior outfielder Jennifer Krueger said. “To know that we can go to either one of them and shut down every team they face gives the defense a lot of confidence. As hitters, we know if we score a few runs we have a great chance to win.”
While the Badgers have found success on the mound, they are facing a team this weekend that boasts two of the most dominating pitchers in the Big Ten.
This weekend, the Badgers will not only be the first opposing team to play at the Nittany Lions’ new softball facility, but they will also face the shutdown duo of the Nittany Lions Lisa Akamine and Jackie Hill.
While Akamine posts a 5-5 record and Hill maintains an 8-6 record, both pitchers have ERAs fewer than two runs per game (Akamine 1.27, Hill 1.6).
“We’re going to have to get creative offensively to see how we can score some runs,” Healy said. “We know going into their place with their new stadium they will be excited, so we’re going to have to pull out some new tricks and see if we can create some offense.”
The Penn State pitchers will have to face a balanced Badger offense currently boasting four players hitting over .300. Krueger and Powell have led the Badger offensive success this season, with Krueger leading the team with a .389 average (backed by a school record 19-game hit streak) and Powell in RBIs with 15 and home runs with five.
Facing a Penn State team with a .968 fielding percentage and two dominant pitchers, Wisconsin will have a tough test on the road.
“My strategy lately has been swinging early and staying within my own approach,” Powell said. “I’m not really worrying about what they pitch as much as myself staying consistent.”
Krueger emphasized the same approach of Wisconsin focusing on itself more then Penn State.
“I just do the same thing every time by putting the ball in play,” Krueger said. “If I focus on getting on base and creating havoc for the defense, I should be fine. Their pitchers are great, but we’ll make adjustments according to what they’re throwing after the first time through the lineup.”
The Badgers’ pitchers have a favorable matchup with the Nittany Lions’ offense, whose combined team batting average is a measly .221. The Badgers are optimistic about their chances but aren’t looking past the Lions.
“I think you’ve got to be ready for everybody to put the ball in play,” Healy said. “They do a nice job of bunting and advancing runners, so we need to be ready for anything. From a team standpoint, they’re a team that’s won a lot of games against us. We need to go into the game feeling loose; we’re going in as an underdog, but hopefully we can surprise everyone.”
While seven of the Nittany Lions’ 11 losses have been decided by three runs or less, the Badgers will remain cognizant of the importance of maintaining consistency.
“We’re going to stay within ourselves and stay scrappy,” Powell said. “We want teams to know we’re never going to fall over. We’ll always come back and fight. We’ve faced top teams throughout the year; we know we can play with anybody.”