As the University of Wisconsin softball team teeters in and out of the top 25 rankings, being ranked at all is an accomplishment of this Badger program.
The No. 25 Badgers are off to their best start in program history at 30–8 and are on track to easily surpass their best record in school history by the end of this season.
After losing heavy hitters and some experience from last year’s NCAA Tournament Badger team, Head Coach Yvette Healy and Wisconsin fans weren’t sure how the 2019 season was going to unfold.
But Wisconsin came out firing at all cylinders with flashy defense, a dominant pitching core, all backed up by a power-hitting offense.
Wisconsin sits 28th overall in the country for team batting average, mainly because of junior Kayla Konwent.
Konwent sits fourth in the nation in batting average with a remarkable .483 clip and is currently ranked fourth in on-base percentage at .580.
With the newfound Badger success, let alone from a junior, Wisconsin fans are left wondering, where did Konwent come from?
Konwent is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of Central High School in Salem, Wisconsin. Not only was Wisconsin attractive to her because of the Badgers being her home town team, but she also played travel ball as a teenager with some of her fellow Badger teammates.
Both junior Caroline Hedgcock and senior Stephanie Lombardo were Konwent’s teammates long before they all put on the Badger jersey.
While Badger fans have known Lombardo for making plays at first base and the plate for the past three years, Hedgcock has also been drawing eyes in her first season as a Badger.
With that said, why are we just seeing Konwent as an offensive firepower?
The answer to that question is one word that no athlete ever wants to hear: Injury.
Konwent played in 13 games her freshman season — starting in 12 — until she was sidelined with an injury to her right throwing arm. A problem that developed over time before Konwent required surgery during her freshman year.
Konwent still wears a rather large brace on her right elbow when she plays now, but the good news for all the Badger faithfuls is she’s back at the plate and ready to make some noise. While looking back at the season so far, she’s got the volume on full blast.
Konwent is not only the leadoff hitter in the lineup, but she is also leading the Badgers in hitting percentage, on-base percentage, home runs, at-bats, hits, doubles, RBIs, total bases and slugging percentage.
She also recently broke the single-season home run record for this Wisconsin program with 13 totals and at least 14 games left to play.
Due to her dominant play, she is constantly one of the main focuses of Badger opponents.
In Wisconsin’s last home series versus Iowa, Konwent was walked a total of four times — three in one game — as the Hawkeye pitchers would rather give Konwent a free base and make her teammates hit her in than see one of her hits go flying over the fence.
“My mindset or approach doesn’t change at all,” Konwent said about being walked. “Any way that I can get on, I know the whole team is ready behind me. Whether that be [Taylor Johnson], Steph, Caroline or whoever, my goal is just to get on base every single time.”
Luckily for Konwent, she isn’t the only Badger powerhouse in the lineup.
Healy usually follows Konwent with sophomore catcher Johnson, Lombardo and Hedgcock. All of these Badgers are currently hitting above a .250 batting average, making Konwent’s understudies more like supporting roles.
“It’s hard to walk Kayla ever when you’ve got Johnson on deck,” Healy said.
With Konwent’s return, Healy saw a conflict in her lineup at the beginning of the season.
The two players that would be two of her leading hitters — Konwent and Lombardo — both played the same position at first base. Nevertheless, with the use of the designated player rule, Healy was able to incorporate all her top hitters.
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Healy and the Badgers have found a way to legally work the system to keep all three hitters in the lineup by using one of them as the designated player for the Badger pitcher.
Also, through subbing in and out pinch runners when both Konwent and Lombardo get on, Healy is able to place those runners into right field for an inning or two — Hedgcock’s position — without having to take Hedgcock’s bat out of the lineup.
“We have so many true defenders that are really speedy kids, so it’s nice that any of them can come in and run and play defense,” Healy said.
Subbing in and out also allows both Konwent and Lombardo to play first base while they both get to hit. While this constant transition could be confusing for some athletes, it seems as if Konwent and Lombardo have figured it out.
“Me and Steph communicate a lot in between innings,” Konwent said. “We’re … talking about the hitters, talking about what their tendencies are. I think a big thing of that is communicating.”
While it all may look confusing in action, it proves that Healy knows her Badger team better than anyone else and that is why she has been able to strategically lead this Wisconsin team to their best start in program history.
While Konwent may be seen to be the center of this strategic play — and rightfully so — the Badger offense has proved there to be more than one playmaker ready to lead this team to a third straight NCAA tournament appearance — which would be another first in school history.
Wisconsin will be back at Goodman Diamond in Madison Wednesday to host conference rival Minnesota in a doubleheader that will prove crucial to end-of-season rankings come Big Ten tournament time. The games start at 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. and is available to watch on BTN2GO or tune into live stats at uwbadgers.com