Stickers are a big deal for the Wisconsin softball team (6-3 Big Ten, 22-12 overall), as the coaching staff will often give out stickers to players for great individual and team performances.
Over the course of a school-record-tying eight-game win streak, head coach Yvette Healy and the rest of the Badger softball coaches have had plenty to reward.
“It’s been fun to see them fight,” Healy said. “They enjoy playing with each other, and they feed off each other’s energy.”
This year’s team has been scrappier than most prior Badger softball teams. Comeback wins against Minnesota and Western Illinois in extra innings have sustained the team’s momentum and catapulted the team into contention for its first NCAA tournament berth since 2005.
“The team really plays better when they keep it loose and are encouraging each other,” Healy said. “It really shows us as coaches the kind of mood the team has.”
With all the success that the Badgers have had in the last week, they will be running up against an Illinois squad (2-7, 16-18) that has been trending the opposite way. The Fighting Illini have dropped nine of their last ten contests, and have gotten off to a much slower start in the Big Ten than most predicted.
“Illinois is a great program, they have always had a very offensive team,” Healy said. “They have really played a tough schedule.”
In their last Big Ten series, Illinois was swept by Nebraska, who many expect to be in the thick of the conference title race. Over three games in Lincoln the Fighting Illini were outscored 20-2 by the Cornhuskers.
“The way the Big Ten is set up some teams begin with a harder schedule and Illinois has faced some quality opponents,” Healey said. “It’s going to be a battle at their place, they are a quality club.”
On the mound Badger fans can expect to see a pitching by committee approach to the upcoming series. Sophomore right-hander Amanda Najdek, junior lefty Meghan McIntosh and sophomore right-hander Cassandra Darrah will be pitching this weekend against Illinois.
“Darrah has been throwing well, but on Tuesday in the West Illinois game everyone had to get in to get the win,” Healy said. “It is definitely a club effort right now.”
Darrah has been the difference-maker on the pitching staff this season as her 2.46 ERA and 14-6 record lead the team. In the Iowa series, Darrah started all three games and may be expected to do so again to keep Illinois’s explosive offense at bay.
“Staying focused and not dwelling on a mistake when something goes wrong has been a big part of things,” Darrah said.
Whoever pitches for the Badgers can expect to run into an Illinois lineup that features senior infielder Meredith Hackett. Through 34 games the senior leads the Fighting Illini with 21 runs batted in and seven home runs.
“Hackett is our main focus, she has the most homeruns on their team,” Darrah said. “We are going to be looking out for their whole lineup though, Illinois is a great hitting team.”
Offensively for Wisconsin, senior first baseman Karla Powell and freshmen outfielder Marissa Mersch will be expected to fill in in key spots for Wisconsin, as both will be finding their way into the lineup this weekend. The heart of the offense lies with sophomore shortstop Stephanie Peace, whose all-around solid offensive play has ignited the Badger offense.
“Illinois is a great team, they are going to come out firing and will be hitting both sides of the plate,” Peace said. “We just have to come out and take care of business this weekend.”