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Friday, April 19, 2024
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Wisconsin Softball seeks more from familiar roster as 2023 season begins

Ahead of Thursday’s season opener, Wisconsin will have their eyes set on improving from their eighth-place Big Ten finish in 2022 with the help of familiar faces albeit with some intriguing newcomers.

It’s officially softball season for Wisconsin, even if Madison’s recent weather suggests otherwise. Luckily, the Badgers will begin their 2023 campaign with four games — from Thursday through Saturday — on Mexico’s west coast in Puerto Vallarta. 

Coming off an eighth-place finish in the Big Ten in 2022, the Badgers will field a familiar roster, albeit with some intriguing additions who could help improve upon their 12-11 conference record (30-21 overall). 

The bats

With the exception of center fielder Ally Miklesh, Wisconsin returns all of its regulars from a season ago. That lineup ranked 13th in the conference with a .254 batting average and 10th with a .392 slugging percentage. The Badgers struck out 345 times, which led the Big Ten by a significant margin. 

Drawing 184 walks (third in Big Ten) helped Wisconsin finish with a strong, .364 on-base percentage. High-walk, high-strikeout results, combined with middle-of-the-pack home run output (32), indicate an overly passive approach at the plate. With a presumably similar lineup, swinging more freely could be the key to more substantial offensive production. 

Designated hitter Kayla Konwent powers Wisconsin’s top-heavy lineup. Last season she slashed .355/.513/.638 with 10 doubles, 10 home runs, 32 RBI and 38 walks. Konwent, who often hit leadoff for the Badgers, ranked seventh in the Big Ten with her 1.151 OPS. She also now holds the Wisconsin program record with 33 career home runs.

The prolific season resulted in All-Big Ten First Team and All-Region First Team honors. In January, D1 Softball ranked Konwent the 92nd best player in the country for 2023.

Wisconsin will also lean on senior infielder Fiona Girardot for offense once again. Her .927 OPS was second on the team behind Konwent last year, as were her four home runs. Girardot earned All-Big Ten Second Team honors for her excellent 2022 season. 

Between Miklesh and pinch runner Morgan Kummer, the Badgers lost 19 of their 45 stolen bases from a year ago. Replacing that production would be huge for the offense, especially if Wisconsin makes the necessary adjustments to put more balls in play this year. 

The arms

The 2022 Badgers followed a clear formula with their limited pitching staff — throw strikes, pitch to contact and keep the ball in the park. As a result, Wisconsin walked fewer batters (84) than anyone in the conference and allowed the second-fewest home runs (23). 

At the same time, Wisconsin pitchers allowed a .270 opponents’ batting average and managed just a 15.5 percent strikeout rate — second-lowest in the Big Ten.

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Maddie Schwartz has been Wisconsin’s ace for the last two seasons and returns for a final year in 2023. Last season she posted a 2.50 ERA and 130:53 K:BB in 213 innings. 

The All-Big Ten Second Team right-hander shouldered a massive workload last year, appearing in 41 games (30 starts) and occasionally throwing close to 200 pitches per weekend. Schwartz typically bookended three-game weekends with starts and appeared in relief in the middle game. 

Of the other two qualifying pitchers Wisconsin used last season — Tessa Magnanimo and Ava Justman — only Magnanimo returns. With a 3.35 ERA in 54.1 innings, Magnanimo was a very capable No. 2, but in tight situations, coach Yvette Healy was often quick to get Schwartz back in the circle. 

Freshman pitcher Paytn Monticelli is one of the Badgers’ most intriguing newcomers in 2023. The Cedarburg native was named Gatorade Wisconsin Softball Player of the Year in 2021 and 2022, among other honors. With a fastball that touches 70 mph and a track record of high strikeout totals, Monticelli could be a massive addition to a Badger pitching staff which both lacked depth and struggled to miss bats in 2022. 

While Schwartz and Magnanimo were effective last season, their fatigue showed down the stretch as Wisconsin lost each of its last six regular-season games. Contributions from Monticelli and fellow freshman Shelby Jacobson could lead to more consistency throughout the spring and help the Badgers fare better in the postseason. 

Barring major regression from the returners, however, the pitching staff figures to be very strong in 2023. The offense is undoubtedly a bigger concern — if Konwent, Girardot and Peyton Bannon don’t receive more help down the lineup, Badger pitchers will have dangerously little room for error. 

The Badgers play a double-header Thursday versus California Baptist University and Brigham Young University. Then, they face Oregon on Friday afternoon and Ole Miss on Saturday evening. Extended trips to Georgia, Florida, Indiana, Texas and Michigan will follow, and Wisconsin won’t play its home opener at the Goodman Diamond until March 28. 

Keep an eye on the Daily Cardinal and @cardinal_sports on Twitter for softball content throughout the season as well as coverage of hockey, basketball and other Wisconsin sports. 

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