Coming off a 28-24 season in 2016 and a second consecutive year without an NCAA tournament appearance, the outside expectations for Wisconsin’s softball team were moderate coming into the 2017 season. The Badgers didn’t appear on any pre-season watch lists or Top 25 rankings, but head coach Yvette Healy knew that senior catcher Chloe Miller and the rest of the team were capable of more than they had shown the year before.
“When the season ended last year I remember telling the staff that this kid hasn’t come into her own yet … I really thought she had more left in the tank,” Healy told the Wisconsin State Journal about Miller, who had just completed a season in which she hit .358 and lead the team in runs batted in and slugging percentage.
Healy’s prediction turned out to be spot-on, as Miller led the Big Ten with a .426 batting average and became Wisconsin’s first ever NFCA All-American. Still, Healy could have just as easily been talking about the rest of her team. Lead by Miller and freshman pitcher Kaitlyn Menz, the Badgers raced out to a 21-2 start after 23 games. And while it couldn’t maintain such a hot stop, Wisconsin finished the regular season with a 35-17 record and a return to the NCAA tournament.
Menz was key to Wisconsin’s strong performance in the Big Ten, as she accounted for 10 of the team’s 11 conference victories, including a win over no. 17 Michigan in which she recorded an 11-inning shutout. The freshman phenom also pitched a no-hitter against Louisville, becoming only the second Badger freshman to do so.
The team’s strong conference play earned them a coveted NCAA tournament berth, where they matched up with a dauntingly familiar foe. The Badgers were placed in the Eugene regional with the Oregon Ducks, who had sent them packing from the tournament in 2013 and 2014 respectively. After beating the Missouri Tigers in its opening game, Wisconsin nearly flipped the script against the heavily favored Ducks as they took a 5-2 lead into the 6th inning. Oregon battled back to win the game 6-5, and the Badgers were unable to challenge in the next day’s rematch, which they lost 9-0.
While coming so close to advancing to the program’s first super-regional could be remembered as a disappointment, Healy stressed the significance of what the Badgers had accomplished this season.
“It makes it that much more gut-wrenching that you're that close, but I don't think many people can say that they gave them a scare like we did,” she said to UWBadgers.com after the loss. “You can't replicate that experience.”
Despite losing Miller, who was drafted by the Akron Racers of the National Pro Fastpitch League, and also losing senior pitcher Kirsten Stevens, the Badgers return a strong core for next year with the talent and experience to take the program to new heights.