Riding a four-game winning streak, the Wisconsin softball team wraps up its seven-game home stand at Goodman Diamond with a doubleheader against Big Ten rival Northwestern Wednesday.
With a win over Northwestern (25-16, 9-5 Big Ten), Wisconsin (33-9, 10-5) can match its 34-win total from all of last season with more than two weeks left to go in the regular season.
The Badgers will have their hands full with a Wildcats team that won two out of three games against Wisconsin last season in Madison and ultimately made the NCAA tournament as a bubble team as UW was forced to watch the tournament from home.
“They’re huge,” Wisconsin head coach Yvette Healy said of the two games against Northwestern. “Northwestern won the series against us last year up here … and they got into the NCAA tournament last year. We were both bubble teams and they got the nod, so we know how good they are. … It’s a big rivalry.”
Wisconsin has had trouble with Northwestern throughout program history with an 11-26 all-time record against the Wildcats and a 2-3 record under Healy.
This season, NU and UW are both playing high-quality softball as the Wildcats are just a half a game back of the Badgers, who are third in the Big Ten standings and, the two are tied for the second-best team batting average (.313) in the Big Ten.
For a Wisconsin offense that started the season off to a blistering start, averaging almost six runs per game through its first 20, the bats have cooled down a bit scoring an average of less than three runs in its last nine games.
“I don’t if it’s something that needs to change as it is just a mindset,” outfielder Mary Massei said. “[We need to] be aggressive, take hacks at pitches. We’re a good offensive team and even though we’ve been slow the last couple of weeks; I have no doubt in my mind that we’ll get it done.”
UW hitting coach Randy Schneider believes that only having two outdoor practices to date thanks to the prolonged winter weather in Wisconsin has taken a toll on the players’ batting.
“I wish [our batting] were a little bit better,” Schneider said. “We just haven’t had a chance to see the ball off the bat with all of our indoor practice and hitting in the cage. You can kind of see it. Obviously, we’ve gone through a lot of really good pitching in the past two or three weeks … but our hitting has dropped. But, I’m proud of kids. We’ve gotten on base and we’ve done what we’ve needed to do to win games. So we’ll take it.”
Life won’t get any easier for the Badgers at the plate Wednesday as the Wildcats has one of the Big Ten’s top pitchers on their roster in right-handed sophomore Amy Letourneau.
Letourneau comes in with a 17-9 record in 2013, making her living off strike outs with a conference-leading 231 punch outs in 28 appearances.
“I think with [Letourneau] we just have to be patient at the plate and really be selective to the strikes we’re going to hit,” Schneider said. “She’s tough. They’ve got a great plan. They rarely throw the ball on zone, so you have to be patient, and that’s the thing we are going to tell our kids.”
Patience will be key for the Wisconsin hitters as along with her 200-plus strike outs, Letourneau also leads the Big Ten in walks with 142 free passes given on the year.
Wisconsin will be able to hold its own on the mound Wednesday with pitchers Cassandra Darrah and Meghan McIntosh, who boast a 2.07 and 1.62 ERA respectively and own the second-best team ERA in the Big Ten (1.86).
“I’m proud of how hard they’re battling,” Healy said of her pitchers. “They just showed so much composure over the weekend. It was tough and even when Ohio State scored. I think it takes a tremendous amount of mental toughness from Darrah to give up a grand slam and still pick up the win for us and that’s the type of maturity and toughness that Tracie Adix our pitching coach is really helping instill.”
Healy knows Northwestern brings in a high-powered offense and experienced team to Goodman Diamond Wednesday and doesn’t expect too much from her pitchers but knows it will be an exciting matchup.
“I don’t think we’ll throw any shutouts out there,” Healy said. “But if we can hold them down and give our hitters a chance, it could be exciting. ”