Finally, after trips to warmer weather in California, Texas, Florida and a weekend in State College, the Badgers return to the friendly confines of Goodman Diamond.
Well, they’ll have to wait one extra day.
With Wednesday’s home opener against Illinois-Chicago postponed due to poor field conditions, the Badgers (15-11) will look to win their first home games in a doubleheader against the Loyola Ramblers (11-9) on Thursday.
“We’re excited to be back home and playing,” head coach Yvette Healy said. “The sun’s out, everyone’s getting spring fever and minds are drifting to baseball and softball. It’ll be nice to finally be out on our own grass.”
The Badgers hope to rebound with wins on Thursday after dropping two hard fought games last weekend at Penn State. The Badgers held leads late in both games, including a game where the Badgers scored the go ahead run in the eighth inning before the Lions rallied back with two of their own to claw the game away.
“We talked to the team this week about finishing games,” Healy said. “Keeping focus every inning, every out and every pitch, that’s what closes out games. Penn State’s a great team, I was really proud we were in those games so late and had chances to win.
“We’ve been in tons of those close games and came out on the winning side all year. This was one of the few times we’ve had it flipped on us. As a coach, I’m happy with how we fought out those situations, but now the girls found out what it’s like to be on the other end of it.”
The Badgers put up base runners aplenty (18) against one of the Big Ten’s best pitching duos in Penn State’s Jackie Hill and Lisa Akamine but failed to bring the runs across the plate when it mattered most. The Badgers left 18 on base in the weekend series, an aspect the Badgers look to improve on when they face the Ramblers.
“As a team, we need to focus on just getting the ball in play at those times,” sophomore Shannel Blackshear said. “We need to make the other team make the plays to beat us, not make it easier by striking out.”
“A big part of those important at bats is the mental side of the game. It’s a mindset of knowing it’s a big situation but a situation where you stay relaxed. We all hit the ball great throughout the game; now we need to continue the success in those clutch spots.”
Clutch hits are something the Badgers hope will make them a truly great team in the future.
“Those situations mostly deal with a player’s mentality,” freshman Stephanie Peace said. “Everyone here has played softball their whole life, so we have the talent and know what it takes. We have to come through in those big situations and be confident in ourselves and in each other.”
The Badgers will face a familiar foe in Loyola Thursday. Not only have the Badgers owned the Ramblers in the history of the series with a record of 20-1-1, but the Badgers current head coach spent last year coaching in the other dugout.
As the former head coach of the Ramblers, Healy is looking forward to coaching against her former team from the home dugout, this time at Goodman Diamond.
“It’ll be an exciting series; they’re a team that can run a bit, so we’ll have to be really strong defensively,” Healy said. “You always want to see how you match up with good regional opponents. They’re a good Midwest team, so we’re going to focus on perfecting the basics of our game.”
Last year, Healy led the Ramblers to their highest collective batting average in history at .292. While the Ramblers come into Thursday’s matchup not boasting those same incredible numbers, the Ramblers are led by a dynamic offensive player in senior Jacqueline Grim (.364 BA, 4 HR, 10 RBI).
Grim comes into Madison after being named the NFCA National Player of the Week for her dominant role in the Ramblers’ sweep of Youngstown State, going 5-5 in the three games series with two home runs and an even more impressive 1.000 on-base percentage and 2.400 slugging percentage.
Healy voiced the Badgers face a challenge in a player like Grim but remains confident the team will come away victorious if they stick to their game plan.
“We’re going to work on our pitchers hitting their spots and changing speeds,” Healy said. “Loyola does a good job offensively, but I think if we stick to our strategy we’ll take care of business.”
“Defensively, we’ll focus on making them get great hits to score runs rather than giving up one big play or making errors on the field,” Blackshear said. “We want them to beat us; we can’t beat ourselves in these games.”
The Badgers have shown throughout the season that they have the ability to consistently improve. With the shortcomings at Penn State behind them, the Badgers will look to those close losses as guidance and motivation for their doubleheader.
“I think as a team we matured a lot through the games,” Peace said. “We learned how to fight through diversity with the ups and downs of the weekend, and I think we learned and grew as a team.”
“We have to play our game. We’re a great team defensively all the way around. It’s very important to stay confident at a time like this. With back to back losses this last weekend, it’s easy to get down on yourself, but we’ll fight through it. If we play our game, I know we can hang with anybody.”