After finishing off 23 consecutive road games with a series win over the Iowa Hawkeyes, the Badgers are finally returning to the friendly confines of Goodman Diamond, where Wisconsin will take on Northwestern in its home opener.
While the Wildcats’ record (11-17, 0-3) is unremarkable at first appearance, the Badgers (13-10, 2-1) will remain weary of their talented opponent. Facing a grueling non-conference schedule that featured 11 ranked opponents – including bouts with the No.1 and No. 2 teams in the nation – Northwestern comes into this three-game series extremely battle-tested.
The Wildcats face Madison fresh off a three-game conference losing streak. Northwestern was swept at Nebraska, and the team pitching was shelled for a combined 24 runs. The Badgers, on the other hand, will enter their home opener in good standing, as the team narrowly missed sweeping the Hawkeyes last weekend to take two out of three games at Iowa City.
For Wisconsin, winning the series comes down to containing the bats of Northwestern. The Wildcats’ lineup features a plethora of big-name hitters, including three returning all-Big Ten players.
Headlining the Northwestern offense is infielder Marisa Bast. The sophomore is currently following up her freshman season – one that earned her second-team all-Big Ten honors – with a batting average of .434, good for second in the conference. Just behind Bast – but leading off in the Northwestern batting order – is junior Emily Allard. The returning first-team all-Big Ten player from just a year ago currently bats .385.
Rounding out the Northwestern’s lineup is senior power hitter Adrienne Monka. Perhaps the most dangerous and disciplined bat on the Wildcats roster, Monka was named second-team all-Big Ten in 2011 for a season in which she led the country with 1.53 walks per game, the second highest mark in NCAA Division I single-season history. She also led the nation with a .707 on-base percentage, unofficially the second highest percentage in Division I history.
Wisconsin head coach Yvette Healy knows her Badgers have a dangerous task ahead, facing a Northwestern team that has already hit 24 home runs this season.
“You try to get power hitters to chase, but someone like [Monka] is going to hit it so you just have to try and contain her to singles where you can,” Healy said. “You have to pick and choose who you go after. For us the key will be doing a really nice job against their seven, eight, nine kids to give us a chance.
“We know their top kids are going to get their hits. I would be stunned if we see low scoring games. We know they’re going to look like football scores. We just have to be comfortable with that and stay the course. That’s how we got our wins last year against them.”
Even though the Badgers will face one of the strongest offenses in the Big Ten, it helps they have one of the best pitchers in the conference wearing the cardinal and white. After pitching every inning of the Badgers’ three games last weekend – two of which were wins – No. 1 pitcher Cassandra Darrah will look to cool down the Wildcats’ hot bats. With a 9-5 record and an earned run average of 2.30, the Badgers will look to lean on their workhorse to contain their opponent.
“Cass threw an amazing three games,” senior Karla Powell said. “You don’t really ever see one pitcher pitch for three games. When she stepped up, everyone put everything on the line and stepped up.”
It was a sentiment freshman Maria Van Abel emphasized as well.
“Cass really pitched great; her pitching really gave us a lot of momentum,” Van Abel said. “Obviously it’s a big deal when your pitcher can give you three whole games on the mound.”
The Wisconsin offense will more than likely have its chance to provide its ace with the run support she needs, as the Northwestern pitching staff does not boast a single pitcher with an ERA under 2.50.
“Their pitchers are average,” Powell said. “We’re telling each other to go up to the plate and have a plan. They’re going to try to make us chase but we just need to be disciplined and wait for our pitches.”