While Madison is as cold and snowy as ever, the softball team is heating up, spending its last two weekends in the Sunshine State to open up their 2014 season.
In the University of South Florida-Wilson DeMarini Classic, the Badgers (4-5) played four games over the weekend (Feb. 7-9), posting wins over Bethune Cookman (1-9) and Illinois State (3-6). Wisconsin also faced No. 3 Florida (11-0) twice, losing both times.
Last weekend in the Florida International University Classic, the Badgers went 2-3 with a loss to Georgia Southern (6-3) and split their series with both Florida International (8-3) and Florida Gulf Coast (6-4-1).
The Badgers don’t take the field again until the end of February in the Texas A&M Invitational. The weekend’s opponents include Texas A&M, Texas A&M Corpus Christi and Connecticut.
Big Ten season outlook
While the South is generally a hotbed for softball talent, this year’s Big Ten conference has its share of contenders. When it comes to the conference championship, there are two teams that seem to be headed towards contention: Michigan and Nebraska.
No. 4 Michigan (7-2) will look to grab its seventh consecutive Big Ten title and their 23rd NCAA Tournament berth in the last 24 years under coach Carol Hutchins. The Wolverines return six starting position players, four of which were All-Big Ten last season. Sophomore shortstop Sierra Lawrence is the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year. Michigan also returns two All-Big Ten pitchers, junior Sara Driesenga and junior Haylie Wagner.
No. 8 Nebraska (7-2) looks to win their first Big Ten title after joining the conference in 2011. The Cornhuskers return with senior All-American catcher Taylor Edwards, as well as her twin, Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Tatum Edwards and six other All-Big Ten players. The team also looks toward a talented freshman class to give their outfield a boost.
Fringe conference championship contender No. 22 Minnesota (8-1) looks to rely on the return of three All-Big Ten players to contend with Nebraska and Michigan.
The Badgers look to keep trending upwards in the Big Ten under coach Yvette Healy. Before her arrival, the team bounced around the bottom of the conference for much of the 2000s, but in 2011, Healy’s first year, the team improved to sixth. They finished sixth again in 2012, and jumped up to fourth after the regular season last year, eventually winning the Big Ten Tournament. They also made it to the NCAA Regional round for the first time since 2005.
The Badgers return two All-Big Ten players, including senior pitcher Cassandra Darrah, who has gotten off to a hot start again this season. She has five complete games in as many starts, with an ERA of 2.12.
While these teams look to continue their dominance, other Big Ten squads have come close to upsetting tough teams, including Michigan State’s (2-5) one run loss to No. 7 Oklahoma (6-4). The conference schedule is anything but decided.
Players to watch for this season
Cassandra Darrah, senior pitcher
One of the biggest reasons for the Badgers’ unprecedented success in 2013 was the outstanding play by pitcher Cassandra Darrah.
Last year, Darrah put together one of the most impressive individual seasons in UW softball history, going 27-7 with a 1.82 ERA and 172 strikeouts.
She set the UW single-season record for winning percentage (.794), and even tossed a no-hitter against Georgia Southern, the Badgers’ first no-hitter in 12 years.
In the Big Ten Tournament, she was named MVP after pitching all 21 innings in the Badgers’ three victories with a 1.67 ERA.
With 68 career victories, Darrah already ranks second all-time in wins at UW, and she will undoubtedly be playing inspired softball in her final season at Madison.
Maria Van Abel, junior outfielder
Though her performance in 2013 was nothing to scoff at, Maria Van Abel has taken her game to a new level in the early stages of the 2014 season.
Through nine games, Van Abel leads the Badgers in several offensive categories, including batting average (.464), hits (13) and stolen bases (6).
Her career batting average of .361 trails only senior outfielder Mary Massei in the UW record books. She could shatter the single-season record for batting average if she continues to hit at the torrid pace she has been.
Mary Massei, senior outfielder
In 2013, Mary Massei not only had the best season of her collegiate career, she had one of the best seasons in Wisconsin softball history.
Massei set single-season records for batting average (.421), at-bats (195), slugging percentage (.672), OPS (1.156), runs (51), hits (82) and total bases (131).
She also owns the highest career batting average (.367) and on-base percentage (.432) in Badger history.
While Massei hasn’t been setting any records for her power, her home runs tend to come in the biggest moments of the game, including walk-off home runs against Notre Dame and Ohio State in 2013.