After a stellar 2016 campaign, the UW softball team has knocked already-high expectations out of the park in 2017.
As the season plunges into competitive conference action, Wisconsin will need to muster all of its confidence and toughness to beat rivals like Michigan and Minnesota. However, a nearly perfect preseason for the Badgers offered notable performances and teased what may come in Big Ten play.
After 26 games on the road, the Badgers finished with a spectacular 23-3 record. With stops ranging from Clearwater to Cedar Falls, UW threw down its best start to a season since 2013.
In late February, the Badgers received high praise for their play against top-ranked opponents like South Florida and James Madison. Expert performances from veteran players like seniors Chloe Miller and Sara Novak have been early high notes for the Badgers; the pair of veterans have taken the reigns of the program and show no signs of slowing down.
Freshman Kaitlyn Menz also joined in on the action early in the season. After only her second weekend as an Division I pitcher, Menz earned Freshman of the Week Honors. Menz limited opponents to a measly 1.94 earned-run average as the Badgers blew by two ranked teams. In addition to her two wins, Menz held batters to just a .232 batting average while chipping in on the offensive end as well.
Similarly, transfer shortstop Brooke Wyderski is showing signs of brilliance as a defensive player. She racked up impressive offensive numbers while playing for Loyola University Chicago, but this year her impressive glove work has been a fantastic addition to an already-formidable lineup.
In mid-March, the Badgers ruled the Rockies and finished the Colorado State Classic Tournament with a 5-0 record. Though the thin air in Colorado makes for an easier outing for any hitter, the clinic that UW put on in Fort Collins was remarkable by any measure.
The hit parade was led by sophomore Stephanie Lombardo, who drove home four home runs over the five-game tournament. Against Colorado State, the Badgers tallied the program’s fourth-most RBIs (13) ever as the runs just kept coming. Wisconsin also got contributions from Miller and junior Chloe Jenkins, who added back-to-back moonshots of their own.
A 14-5 victory over Northwestern in the first conference game was well-deserved, but Wisconsin could not find similar run support in its second game. Northwestern starter Kaley Winegarner silenced the Badgers and allowed just three hits in eight innings in the 5-4 Wildcat victory. Poor Badger fielding kept NU in the game and the Wildcats scored enough early runs to survive. The final game of the three-game stretch against Northwestern went the Badgers’ way and they took a 7-1 victory. There was still room for improvement, though. Wisconsin left five players on base and in tighter games, that could be a deciding factor.
As the Badgers look ahead, an extremely tough stretch of games looms on the horizon. First, Wisconsin will host conference rivals Nebraska and Iowa, then travel to Purdue to face the Boilermakers. Once they return from West Lafayette, Ind., the Badgers face a doubleheader in against Minnesota and Michigan.
At first glance, the grueling schedule against conference opponents looks intimidating. But head coach Yvette Healy sees no reason to worry.
“I know how hard the Big Ten is. We’ll really have our hands full, especially when it’s a year you matchup and you’ve got Michigan, Northwestern, Nebraska, Minnesota,” she said. “Our goal for the preseason was to teach this team how to win and for them to work together. We did just that.”