The Wisconsin softball team (22-3 overall) will begin Big Ten play Friday as it travels to Champaign, Ill., to play three games in three days against conference foe Illinois. The Fighting Illini (10-12) carry a four-game wining streak into the weekend and look to knock off a Badger squad that is off to its best start in school history.
UW head coach Yvette Healy recognizes the importance of the upcoming conference games and hopes the Badgers’ tough non-conference road schedule has prepared them to transition successfully into Big Ten action.
“We’re really happy with this first part of the season. To get it underway and do well against teams on the road is important,” Healy said. “Big Ten games are always tough, so we used the first part of the season to figure out how to pitch and hit against some of the best players in the country.”
Things won’t get any easier for Wisconsin, as UW will be forced to face tough pitchers and hitters this weekend in Champaign.
Illini junior outfielder Alex Booker ranks in the top three in nearly every offensive category for Illinois. Booker heads the offensive attack for the Illini with a .391 batting average, .406 slugging percentage, .435 on base percentage, 15 runs scored and 7 runs batted in.
On the defensive side of the ball, sophomore pitcher Shelese Arnold will look to shut down Wisconsin hitters from the pitcher’s circle. Arnold has had success this season, posting a 4-4 record and an impressive 1.94 earned run average.
“[Illinois has] had a lot of kids doing really well in front of their fans”, said Healy when talking about this weekend’s competition. “I think they’re going to be pretty tenacious.”
Despite having strong offensive performances, the Wisconsin pitching staff has been the backbone of the team so far this season. UW pitchers have held opponents to scoring just two runs or under in 15 games and have allowed more than five runs just twice this year. This is good news for Wisconsin, as the Fighting Illini carry a dismal 2-12 record when being held to five runs or less.
Freshman pitcher Taylor-Paige Stewart credits much of the Badgers’ success in the circle to UW pitching coach Tracie Adix.
“I think the pitching staff has been very focused,” said Stewart. Coach Adix has really been working with us a lot. Working one pitch at a time is our main goal, [along with] simplifying the game and not trying to overdo anything.”
Junior infielder Michelle Mueller stressed the importance of not letting the cold weather in Champaign cool the fire that has propelled Wisconsin into the record books.
“[We’re] not [going to let] the weather, whether it’s nice or not, change our mentality for the game. The fact that we are 22-3 is something we just haven’t had. It’s something we want to hold onto and keep winning.”