Last year, they won the Big 10 Tournament, beating out Northwestern, Michigan and Minnesota, but this year has been a whole different story for the Wisconsin softball team.
A season ago, the Badgers finished with an overall record of 44-13, shattering the previous record for wins in a season and, along the way, earned statistics of 283 runs (247 of which came from RBIs), 47 home runs and five batting averages well over .300.
Clearly, last year was a boast-worthy season if the Wisconsin women’s softball team has ever seen one. But a new season brings new questions, and teams that break records and win championships never can tell what the season will holds until it gets there.
So far this spring, UW has been struggling to find the momentum that carried them through the previous one.
The team is about halfway through its schedule and currently sitting at a record of 16-14, which is significantly less lopsided than last year’s midpoint of 27-4.
With this in mind, it’s hard not to wonder – what’s so different from last year to now?
Head coach Yvette Healy explained while last year’s successes were not just a stroke of luck, it was not the kind of season that’s so easily replicated.
“Last year was one of those seasons where everything fell into place,” Healy said. “When you shatter the school record in wins and win the Big Ten, those are years that are special and everything went right. And this is one of the years where we have to earn every ounce of it. There’s really not the momentum behind us.”
And when considering the talent that graduated from the team last May, it’s not hard to see where some of that momentum might have gone. Three key seniors from a year ago, Kendall Grimm, Whitney Massey and Shannel Blackshear, were major contributors to last spring’s statistics sheet, with Grimm sporting a batting average of .350 and scoring 37 runs for the team, Massey leading in homeruns (12) and RBIs (49) and Blackshear earning high numbers across the board as well.
But losing key players is something every team experiences at the close of the season, and this year’s UW roster isn’t about to let it keep them down.
“We lost a lot of great seniors from last year, so that hurt us a little bit,” senior shortstop Stephanie Peace said. “But we’re fighting through, we’re sticking together as a team, we’re trying to scrap some wins here and there.”
“There’s a couple new positions and we’re starting to learn how to work together,” added senior pitcher Cassandra Darrah. Darrah’s been the starting pitcher for the Badgers since she arrived her freshman year and has been a key player over the years. During the 2013 Big Ten championship season, she kept her earned-runs-average down to 1.82 and fanned 172 batters.
While this season’s numbers aren’t quite as ideal, Darrah isn’t letting that discourage her and went on to point out this spring’s team can’t expect to see the same numbers as last year due to playing a much tougher schedule.
“This year feels different from last year,” Darrah said. “This year we play a ton of ranked teams and it just prepared us better for the Big Ten. Even though we haven’t performed as well in the Big Ten now, I still think it’ll catch up with us and we’ll continue to get better.”
And now is as good of a time as any to see if that proves true. This weekend, the Badgers will head up to Minneapolis to matchup against the Golden Gophers in a three-game series. Minnesota (27-4) has been having a season similar to the one Wisconsin had last spring and hasn’t faced the Badgers since last year’s Big Ten tournament, when Wisconsin walked away with a 9-3 victory.
“I’m sure Minnesota has a bull’s eye on our back,” Healy said.
The Badgers’ head coach mentioned Minnesota is both a strikeout team and one that racks up the runs on every opponent, and not many other squads have been able to consistently put the ball in play against the Gophers or keep them at bay.
But battling through intimidating situations is what Wisconsin has been doing all season long, and Healy suspects they might have a breakthrough game in the near future.
“I feel like we’ve seen a lot of tough stuff, and it just makes the team better,” Healy said. “We haven’t really hit our stride yet, we haven’t peaked and from a timing standpoint that’s a good thing. You don’t want to peak too soon, and we certainly haven’t.”