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Thursday, June 08, 2023

Infielder Stephanie Lombardo is one of three Illinois Chill alumni in the Badgers' top-five hitters by OPS, powering a best-ever offensive start for the team in 2019.

'Just like old times': Travel ball teammates reunite to take Badgers to new heights

Caroline Hedgcock stepped into the box with confidence. She looked for her pitch, hoping to drive in the two runners on base and break the game open for the Badgers. 

Wisconsin was facing off against no. 15 Arizona State, its fourth opponent in the last two days, and looking to upset a ranked team for the second time that day after besting no. 9 Texas earlier in the afternoon.

Hedgcock slapped the first pitch she saw over the fence, to straightaway center field. She trotted around the bases, following the two teammates she just knocked in; sophomore Taylor Johnson and junior Kayla Konwent. Hedgcock tapped the plate before being mobbed by her fellow Badgers.

Johnson, like all but two of her teammates, has only known Hedgcock for a few months. 

But because of the bond of those three — Hedgcock, Konwent, and Stephanie Lombardo — the Badgers are flourishing like never before in program history.

The origins of their friendship trace back to an unlikely place for a sports team: a tax lawyer from Northbrook, Illinois. 

Gerry Quinn created the Illinois Chill travel softball club in 1998. It quickly became one the region’s premier clubs, and attracted top high school talent from Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana. That includes Hedgcock, Konwent and Lombardo- the former an Illinoisan and the latter two Wisconsinites. Despite growing up in three different towns and only seeing each other during weekends, the three became fast friends playing in tournaments across the country together. In fact, Konwent committed to Wisconsin soon after Lombardo, despite being a year younger with another season of high school ball left to play.

“One of the things that helped me decide was Steph was on the team,” she said. “For me it was like a sigh of relief.”

In the spring of 2016, Lombardo was the only one of the group present in Madison. Things were different around Goodman Diamond. The Badgers were coming off head coach Yvette  Healy’s worst year yet, in which they went 5-17 in Big Ten play and failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Lombardo, then a freshman, made an immediate impact in the first two games of the season (tallying three hits) before going down with an injury.

Meanwhile, an hour and a half southeast of Madison, Kayla Konwent and the Westosha Central High Falcons were ripping through their Southern Lakes Conference competition. She would go on to win a host of awards and distinctions, including being named a top-20 player in America by FloSoftball.

Konwent traveled forty-five minutes every weekend to Northbrook for practice. Elite travel clubs field players from all different areas and backgrounds, so sometimes it can be hard for chemistry to form in the short period of time the team has to bond. The Chill were an exception. Lombardo largely credits Hedgcock for that.

“It was always fun to have her witty remarks at random times,” said Lombardo.

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Konwent agreed. “Caroline relaxes things a little because she is willing to say things that others aren't willing to say,” she said.

While Hedgcock’s humor calmed tension in the dugout, her competitiveness drove her teammates to reach new heights.

Hedgcock was originally set on attending University of Maryland, largely because she had a great relationship with head coach Courtney Deifel. So when Deifel announced she was leaving College Park to take the job at Arkansas, Hedgcock followed. It only took a four hour visit to the campus for her to commit. 

However, Hedgcock struggled to carve out a consistent role in her two seasons in Fayetteville, despite plenty of promising outings. Healy remembers checking on her old recruit and being surprised.

“I do remember seeing her stats at one point and seeing she really hadn’t put up home run numbers yet, and I thought, ‘Wow, she’s got more potential than she’s shown so far,’” Healy said.

The promise of more playing time certainly impacted Hedgcock’s decision, but off-field factors ultimately led her to Madison. For one, attending games in the Midwest is much easier for her parents than traveling to the south. But the most important factor was the culture of the city, the university and the program.

When Hedgcock visited Wisconsin on her official visit last summer, Konwent came up too. They had breakfast with Healy, casually discussing softball, before the Coach turned them lose. She essentially let her junior catcher take the reins at that point.

“It was kind of weird because I was putting a good word both ways,” Konwent said, adding, “I was trying to remember everything about Caroline, and then I was also trying to keep coach in mind, so it was like both ways facilitating in the best way possible.”

While this mission may have been slightly stressful for Konwent at the time, it turns out she never had anything to worry about. When Hedgcock told her Arkansas roommates that she was going to transfer, she said she already knew her destination.

“I loved playing with Kayla and Steph, so I wanted to be their teammates again. [Wisconsin] was my automatic top pick,” she said.

The Illinois Chill alumni have combined to take the Badgers to new heights. Wisconsin has started the year 24-5, and Konwent, Lombardo and Hedgcock are first, fourth and fifth on the team in on-base plus slugging average. Hedgcock has also contributed as a shutdown reliever, with a 0.66 ERA in 10 innings pitched in relief. Despite the different paths they took to get here, the goal for these three, and the team, is the same: a third straight NCAA regional berth. Wisconsin has never played in three consecutive tournaments but has positioned itself well with a hot start to 2019. 

“Good things are happening, and a great culture is being built…and it’s cool that [Hedgcock] gets to add to that,” said Konwent.

Hedgcock took it a step further.

“Midwestern players are scrappy and gritty, and I want to help make Wisconsin a team that no team wants to play,” she said.

For now, the Badgers are taking it one game at a time and focusing on getting a little bit better every day. No matter how many historic, ranked programs they knock off this season, it all comes back to practices at Goodman. When asked what it felt like to be back in the dugout with her Chill teammates for the first time this year, Lombardo smiled.

“It felt just like old times,” she said.

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