The Wisconsin softball team (11-9) kicks off its Big Ten Conference competition against Iowa (10-15) in a Saturday-Sunday series in Iowa City.
The Badgers have lost two straight games, falling to San Jose State 9-0 in a slaughter-rule-shortened five-inning game and dropping a close 1-0 loss to Oklahoma State last weekend in the Gaucho Classic in Santa Barbara, Calif. Last season, Wisconsin finished 30-23—its sixth 30-win season in team history, and their first since 2005. They finished tied for sixth in the Big Ten with a record of 9-11.
The Hawkeyes have lost nine of their last 11 games but begin a seven-game home stand to open up Big Ten competition. In 2011, Iowa went 27-24 and tied with the Badgers in Big Ten competition with an identical 9-11 record.
Wisconsin won both of their games last year against Iowa in a double-header and swept the Hawkeyes in Iowa City for the first time in school history.
Before this upcoming series, the coaches warned the players about the difficulties faced when playing Iowa.
“They’re a legacy program and a traditionally great softball team,” head coach Yvette Healy said. “If this [Badgers] team stays hungry for it, we have the ability to go in and play well, but it won’t be a piece of cake by any means.”
One thing the Badgers are missing so far this season is the offensive attack of senior All-Big Ten first baseman and designated player Karla Powell, who batted .313 last season with 31 runs batted in.
Powell is the only senior on this year’s team and is battling an injury while batting just .125 this season.
“I just got cleared [to play] the week before we started ... I’ve been working a lot on my short game,” Powell said of the adjustments she has had to make at the plate. “I struggled really hard those first couple months … [but it’s] finally coming back to me now ... [I’m] hoping to finish out my senior year with a bang.”
With such a young team Healy stressed leadership to keep the team close and on the right track. For her, calling upon younger players to lead by example will be crucial in the Badgers’ success this season.
“It’s really weird actually,” Powell said of being the lone senior on this year’s team. “I know [the younger players] look up to me so I try to give them advice ... [it’s nice] to see that people are stepping up when they need to.”
One of these younger players stepping up is freshman outfielder Maria Van Abel. In 20 games—13 of them starts—Van Abel is batting .478 with 22 hits and is leading the Big Ten in batting average.
Van Abel said the first few weeks exposed her to a lot of different situations, and that the playing time in those first 20 games helped prepare her for Big Ten play.
“I think it’s definitely a little bit of pressure, but I think if anyone can do it, we can,” All-Big Ten sophomore outfielder Mary Massei said of how the youth has affected her and Van Abel. “We don’t have that much experience, but [by playing] together ... we’ll [win].”
Being together is something that this team seems to enjoy.
“I think we’re the most lively group of girls you are going to see in the NCAA,” Powell said.
This first weekend of Big Ten play will be a great gauge of how far this young, lively Badgers team can go. Wisconsin’s series with the Hawkeyes kicks off with a Saturday double-header with games at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. and finishes with a 2 p.m. Sunday finale.