After her inaugural year at the helm for the Badgers, Wisconsin softball head coach Yvette Healy had plenty to smile about.
The then-first year coach led Wisconsin to its best conference finish since 2005, going 9-11 in the Big Ten on its way to a 30-win season. The 30 wins in Healy’s first year marked only the sixth time in school history a Badger team won 30 or more games, as Healy’s squad became the first since 2005 to accomplish the feat.
The number of wins was not the only historic aspect of Healy’s Badgers. The team won 10 more games in 2011 than they did in 2010 – the second-largest improvement in program history.
Last year the Badgers were the 11th youngest team in the country. Now, with a core of returning players that features 10 starters, with seven position players and the entire pitching staff, the Badgers have the roster continuity, chemistry and familiarity under Healy to make the outlook on 2012 a bright one.
Swinging for the fences
Just a year ago, the Badgers benefited from the long ball potential in their lineup, as they hit the fifth most home runs in the conference with 29. Leading the Badgers’ offensive power is the returning duo of 2011 First Team all-Big Ten selection senior Karla Powell and junior Shannel Blackshear. The duo combined for 18 of the Badgers’ 29 homers, often batting next to each other in the lineup.
However, Healy and Powell both believe there is room for growth in the Badgers’ long ball game.
“We have definitely done a lot of homework and nerdy statistics this offseason trying to see what makes the best teams the best,” Healy said. “One of the big things was home run production, and I think a lot of the best teams that made it furthest in the NCAA have the ability to hit more home runs per game. So we kind of studied it, analyzed it and then put a whole program in place with strength and conditioning, med balls and rotation and bat speed to try to amp that up.”
“I’d like to break the home run record here in my last season,” Powell said. “I’d like to make all-Big Ten again and All-American this year. Coach [Randy] Schneider talked to me about what I need to do to stand out and be a leader this year as well, because I’m the only senior.”
There’s truth to those beliefs. The best softball teams in the country have been traditionally teams who can belt the ball out of the park. Last year, for example, Michigan recorded 56 homers – a number good for the best in conference. Michigan also recorded the conference’s best record last season at 18-2 in conference play.
Similarly, the two teams that made the NCAA championship game last season were both in the top 10 for home runs in the country.
Former offensive MVP returns
Besides all the familiar faces from last year, the Badgers are happy to welcome back offensive dynamo junior Molly Spence to the team. After missing her entire sophomore season just a year ago due to injury, the Badgers will only benefit from adding the mighty bat of Spence. In her freshman year in 2010 with the Badgers, Spence was named the offensive MVP and the team MVP for her .347 batting average, eight home runs and 41 RBIs (a single season school record).
Although Healy has never had Spence on her roster, the coach has some background with her junior from her days recruiting before she took the job at Wisconsin.
“Luckily Molly’s from Chicago and so am I,” Healy said. “So I was fortunate to recruit her when she was a high school student athlete, so I know how good she is. I really even followed her career her freshman year. She was close to playing for me when I was at a former school, so we were one of her options. She takes the game to another level–she’s that elite of an offensive kid.”
With Spence being one of five newcomers to Healy’s squad, the Badgers have the continuity and talent on their roster to be a challenger for one of the top places in the conference this year. Although many of the players are the same, the expectations for Healy’s second year are not.
“Well we have more experience this year and we’re settled in with coach,” sophomore Stephanie Peace said. “We’re looking to perform well on all cylinders, offensively and defensively. We’re pretty proud of all the work we put in this offseason.”
“I think this year will be harder than last year,” Healy said. “I think your first year [coaching] there’s a bit of a honeymoon and everyone’s excited and wants change, but the second year to sustain that kind of momentum is a bigger challenge than creating it, in my opinion. I think we could surprise people this year, but I think it’s going to be a bigger challenge than last year was.”