It’s been a while since the Wisconsin softball team has been able to claim the spotlight.

Since the program’s creation in 1996, the team has only reached the NCAA tournament three times, with its last berth coming in 2005 under former head coach Karen Gallagher. In fact, Gallagher took the Badgers to every tournament appearance in the team’s history while she amassed a 271-268-2 record in 10 seasons.

When Gallagher decided to step down, she was replaced with Chandelle Schulte, who brought the program down to nothingness. In Schulte’s time with Wisconsin, the Badgers went an unremarkable 99-153 overall and just 23-70 in Big Ten play.

So when Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez hired Yvette Healy to take the reigns of the team in July 2010, it’s fair to say expectations were low for the team. After all, in 15 previous seasons, the program held an unremarkable 369-421-2 record.

But Healy quickly turned things around, taking a team that went just 20-31 and 5-13 in conference play to a 30-23 finish in 2011. The 30-win season was the first since Gallagher’s final season with the Badgers in 2005, while the 10-win improvement was also the second largest in the team’s history, trailing only behind Gallagher’s 18-win improvement in 1997.

While some may argue that a majority of the Badgers’ wins last season came against lower-class non-conference foes – as the Badgers finished only 7-11 in Big Ten play – Healy has continued to show that her team and coaching is for real in 2012. The team is already 22-12 on the season with a 6-3 record in conference play. The team currently has won eight straight games, tied for the school record.

There are a few reasons why this may be the year that Healy and the Badgers finally crack the NCAA tournament, but perhaps the most important is the harsh non-conference slate the team experienced early in the season. In the Badgers’ 23 non-conference games prior to the start of Big Ten play, the young team faced a baptism by fire, facing some of college softball’s best arms.

“We’ve actually seen five to six of the best pitchers in the country,” assistant and hitting coach Randy Schneider said. “Nothing has really slowed down for us. The pitching we’ve faced this season has always been quality. So because of that, when you go out and create this database against good pitching, you get to a point where you can hit any of it.”

When the Badgers opened up the season at the USF tournament against Georgia Southern, they faced a top 50 pitcher in the Eagles’ Sarah Purvis, who currently has an ERA of 1.72 on the season. Yet, the Badgers were able to chase Purvis out of the game and win 3-2 in extra innings.

It didn’t get any easier for Wisconsin the next weekend in Orlando, Fla., when the team faced Florida State twice. The Seminoles – currently ranked No. 21 in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches Poll – gave the Badgers perhaps the best pitching they have seen so far this season, sending the dynamic duo of Lacey Waldrop and Monica Perry to the mound. Waldrop – who currently holds the nation’s 11th best ERA at a ridiculous 1.13 – went the distance to stifle the Badgers, giving up just five hits and two runs – both of which were Wisconsin home runs – while fueling the Seminoles to a 6-2 win.

In the second game against FSU, UW had to face Perry, who currently holds the country’s 21st lowest ERA at 1.22. The Badgers fared no better against the Seminoles with Perry on the mound, as the junior righty baffled the Wisconsin offense -striking out seven Badgers in just three innings – in a 2-1 Florida State victory.

After going through a gauntlet of strong pitching, the Badgers finally got a chance to put their skills to the test against one of the Big Ten’s best pitchers when Minnesota and Sara Moulton came to town last weekend. Moulton, a pitcher with an ERA of just 1.25 – the best in the Big Ten and the 23rd best in the country – started in two of the series’ games while appearing in a third. The Gopher sophomore left Goodman Diamond probably hoping never to return after giving up 18 hits and 10 runs in just under 13 innings of work, as the Badgers won in a sweep.

If this is truly the year that will complete the rebirth of Wisconsin softball with a tournament appearance, the Badgers will need to continue to hit great pitching. The Badgers have yet to play Michigan, Purdue or Nebraska, the teams that remain in front of them in the conference standings. On top of that, the Badgers have yet to face six of the conference’s top 10 pitchers, as the team will take on one of those this weekend in Illinois’ Pepper Gay.

The Badgers also may make the tournament because of their never-say-never mindset. The offense of the 2012 team has already earned two historic comeback wins, both occurring in the last week. The first was an epic 11-10 win over Minnesota last Saturday in which Wisconsin recorded the largest come-from-behind victory in school history after being down 10-2 entering the fourth inning.

Just three days later, the Badgers tied the second largest comeback win in school history by defeating the Western Illinois Leathernecks in nine innings. Healy’s team found itself down 7-1 entering the bottom of the third inning, only to come back to regain the lead 8-7. However, the most remarkable part of the game was when the Badgers entered the ninth inning down 11-8, only to rattle off four runs to win the game. The four runs were the second most scored in a ninth inning in program history.

The Badgers will need to transfer their offensive heroics and success of late into the remainder of the conference season. While the Badgers currently sit at fourth place in the conference after nine games, the team will need to finish in at least the top three to maintain a solid shot of making the NCAA tournament. Last season, only Michigan, Indiana and Penn State received bids for the tournament, with each team boasting an RPI under 50. Right now, as it currently stands, the Badgers sit outside of that target zone with an RPI of 56, just the fifth best of a Big Ten team.

But with a strong early start and a schedule that has Wisconsin playing the Big Ten teams late in the season, this may finally be the year that softball in Madison is truly back on the map.

With this column, Nick has finally reached 100. 100 articles for the Badger Herald, that is, from one of the least talented people you will ever meet. Want to congratulate him? Tell him he’s terrible and you could write better when you were feeling hazy at PCB during break? Let him know at [email protected]