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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Maddie Schwartz has done it all for Wisconsin, but now she doesn’t have to

Senior pitcher Maddie Schwartz has cemented herself among Wisconsin’s best pitchers in recent history. Now, as good as ever, Schwartz hopes to end her career on a high note as a deeper bullpen begins to fill around her.

On April 29, 2022, Wisconsin’s Maddie Schwartz and Penn State’s Bailey Parshall — who led the women’s softball conference with a 1.68 ERA — engaged in an epic pitcher’s duel. Through nine innings, the late-season contest remained scoreless.

Badger left fielder Morgan Kummer homered to give Wisconsin a 1-0 lead in the top of the 10th. Schwartz, 103 pitches into her 29th appearance of the season, induced three straight groundouts in the bottom of the inning to secure the Friday victory. 

The senior’s 21st win of 2022 was arguably her most impressive: 10 innings and 110 pitches, allowing only one hit and one walk. With eight strikeouts and 20 groundouts, the Nittany Lions spent 10 innings mashing the ball into the dirt, if they made any contact at all. Schwartz had surely earned herself a restful Saturday as Wisconsin continued the weekend series with a double-header. 

But not quite. 

Schwartz was back in the circle for a 3 p.m. first pitch. In an efficient 41 pitches, she allowed one hit over four scoreless innings, tallying yet another victory as Wisconsin crushed Penn State, 8-1. 

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Schwartz might have gone the distance in the blowout win had she not been scheduled to start the nightcap as well. Her third and final start of the series was a tough-luck loss, as she allowed four runs (one earned) over 6.2 innings. Leading 3-2 and one out from a third-straight win, Schwartz watched third baseman Skylar Sirdashney’s error unravel into a walk-off rally for the Nittany Lions. 

Wisconsin’s ace right-hander hurled 251 pitches in a 25-hour span. For Schwartz, it was just another weekend in the office. At season’s end, her 213 innings ranked third in the Big Ten and her 2.46 ERA ranked ninth. 

Alongside Schwartz on the Badger pitching staff were Tessa Magnanimo (54.1 innings, 3.35 ERA) and Ava Justman (62.1, 3.93). When it mattered most, however, whether a series opener, a must-win game or a late-inning jam, coach Yvette Healy trusted Schwartz most in the circle.  

“They’ve never really thought about not using me in any situation,” Schwartz said. “I worked so hard through the middle of my career that I got to the point where I didn’t want anyone else to have the ball.”

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Born a Badger

The Chanhassen, Minnesota native didn’t need much convincing to become a Badger. Schwartz, whose grandfather and great-grandfather attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, grew up rooting for Wisconsin sports. 

Healy’s recruiting efforts sealed the deal, but Madison attracted Schwartz for more reasons than pitching. 

“I put all my eggs in one basket,” Schwartz said. “That obviously isn’t smart for recruiting, but this is where I really wanted to be. I knew if softball wasn’t a factor, I wanted to be here for school. As soon as it was an option, I made the easy decision.”

Schwartz’s omnipresence in the circle for Wisconsin in 2022 wasn’t handed to her. Rather, it was the product of her learning and developing under older veteran pitchers. She credits ex-Badger Kaitlyn Menz, who threw 637 innings from 2017-20 with 66 wins and a 2.55 ERA, with helping her grow as a young pitcher.

While Menz appeared in 36 games (25 starts) in 2019, the freshman Schwartz made a strong first impression. She posted a 1.64 ERA and held opponents to a .239 average in 55.1 innings, and she also threw a shutout in one of her three starts. Throughout that debut season, Schwartz envisioned herself as more than a bullpen arm. 

“I tried to model some of my work ethic around people like [Menz],” Schwartz said. “I had my time learning and waiting in the wings. It was kind of how I went about my business in the offseason — I was hungry to earn that starting role.”

Schwartz made eight appearances, all in relief, through the first 24 games of 2020. Her 2.50 ERA and 17:2 K:BB suggested she’d be starting games soon, but COVID-19 wiped out the rest of the schedule. 

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A year later, she finally emerged as the ace and as Menz’s successor, carrying Wisconsin’s pitching staff with 156.2 innings and a career-best 2.23 ERA. By every metric — innings, batters faced, starts, complete games and more — Schwartz was one of the premier workhorses in the Big Ten.

The rubber-armed righty continued in 2022 with head-turning weekends like the one at Penn State. Making 41 appearances (30 starts) in Wisconsin’s 51-game schedule, Schwartz willed the Badgers to a 30-21 record and an NCAA Tournament appearance. There, she logged a save in the first-round victory over Canisius before struggling in a close victory over Georgia Tech. 

What about Schwartz has allowed her to pitch so often, yet so well, for the Badgers since 2021?

Physical preparation and adaptability

Healy doesn’t hesitate to put Schwartz, who has no track record of injuries, in the circle time and time again. That doesn’t mean Schwartz is immune to fatigue, though.

“It definitely becomes a grind toward the end of the season,” she said. “I’m just so lucky to get the ball in those big situations, so I never really think ‘my arm’s hurting’ or anything like that.”

In games she doesn’t start, Schwartz must stay loose throughout and get ready quickly when called upon. On Feb. 25 versus North Carolina, for example, Magnanimo entered for the final out of the seventh inning but allowed two baserunners. Schwartz took over and induced a game-ending groundout. 

“It’s definitely a little more rushed,” Schwartz said of her preparation as a reliever. “You can’t just check out — you have to keep your body moving and not let soreness set in. I’ve found a routine that works for me. Our coaches are pretty good about telling us when they see us coming in, but it can definitely switch on a dime.”

Although Schwartz wasn’t satisfied with her early-career relief role, she admits it helped her save innings for this massive late-career workload. 

Composure under pressure

While Schwartz was confident as a freshman and sophomore, she felt she lacked the composure to battle through high-pressure situations, she said. Once again, she looked up to Menz as a model for excellence. 

“I didn’t understand how she was so stoic and even-keeled out there,” Schwartz reflected. “That was something I really longed for because I felt like every time I was out there I was trying not to mess up. That’s obviously not how you play well and find success.”


Now, in jams like the seventh inning versus North Carolina, Schwartz can effectively control her emotions.

“With all my years of experience, it’s kind of who I am now,” she said. 

A calculated tactical approach

Pitchers generally favor either riseballs or dropballs. Riseballs start high and, thanks to backspin, continue rising. This allows them to elude the upward path of swings and generate whiffs. Dropballs, on the other hand, better align with bat paths and generate weak contact when thrown low. Velocity, release point and other traits make one strategy preferable for a given pitcher, but both can be effective: Riseballs lead to strikeouts, dropballs lead to grounders. 

Schwartz came to Madison as a riseball pitcher. To pitch so many innings and so many games, though, she needed more contact and quicker outs. Those 20 groundouts in the 10-inning Penn State masterpiece? They were a direct product of Schwartz’s newer dropball approach. 

“Our pitching staff and our coaching staff’s philosophy is no big innings — putting up zeroes or ones, not getting too deep into counts,” Schwartz explained. “I pitch to contact, which obviously isn’t as shiny and pretty [as strikeouts], but it has definitely worked for us.” 

She compliments her dropball with a curve, an offspeed pitch which catches hitters out in front and leads to feeble contact or whiffs. In her fifth and final season, Schwartz continues to experiment with new offerings. 

“Usually, early in your career you take away pitches, then as you gain confidence with your few pitches, you add back to your repertoire,” Schwartz said. “I get to play around a lot now, and I have a lot more tools than I had my freshman year. It’s been fun to see how I’ve evolved as a pitcher here.”

Relief on the roster

Schwartz is striking out 0.63 batters per inning pitched through 36.2 innings in 2023 — right in line with her career rate of 0.65. This year especially, the Badgers don’t need her to be a bat-missing flamethrower.

That’s thanks to the arrival of freshman right-hander Paytn Monticelli, whose 70 mph heater has helped her strike out 1.15 batters per inning in the first 41 frames of her career. Most notably, Monticelli struck out 13 Tar Heels in a Feb. 24 complete game. 

“She’s been a great addition to the staff,” Schwartz said of Monticelli. “She’s doing a great job for us, and she brings so much energy to the field. I’m really excited to see how she can keep contributing to our growth as a program.”

Unlike Schwartz in 2019, Monticelli didn’t have to wait long to become a regular starter for Wisconsin. Four of the freshman’s first seven appearances have been starts, and it looks like Monticelli’s here to stay. Schwartz, in contrast, made three starts in 24 total appearances in 2019.

Gabi Salo has also emerged to bolster Wisconsin’s pitching depth. The junior has already set a new career-high with 20.1 innings and boasts a 0.69 ERA with 23 strikeouts.

A deep pitching staff presents numerous advantages. For one, it keeps everyone more rested throughout the three-month regular season. 

“Toward the end of last year we were so excited to go play [in the NCAA Tournament], but it’s hard not to run out of gas,” Schwartz said. “It’s a grind of a season, and this will give us more options going into the postseason. We’ve always wanted to win a Big Ten Championship, and having extra arms is definitely how you do it.”


The diversity of arms, with Monticelli’s swing-and-miss stuff and Schwartz’s contact-welcoming dropballs, gives Wisconsin’s coaches more options to match up with opposing hitters. 

Consider an imposing power hitter who feasts on low pitches. In a crucial late-game situation, Healy can bring in Monticelli to throw high riseballs and get a strikeout. Or, with runners in scoring position, Wisconsin could use Schwartz to induce a double-play ball. The best pitching staffs feature a variety of approaches. In that sense, the Badgers’ group is as complete as it’s been during Schwartz’s career. 

That said, the heightened competition for innings in 2023 hasn’t detracted from the close-knit nature of Wisconsin’s pitching staff. 

“We’re all in each other’s corner — we think each of us can get it done on any given day,” Schwartz said. “There’s never any ‘Why is she pitching?’ or things like that because we’ve all bought into each other’s journeys as pitchers. We all do better when we all do better.”

A leader by example

Menz’s stoicism rubbed off on Schwartz, who was once a shy freshman battling for innings. Other leaders during Schwartz’s career include the vocal Ally Miklesh, who graduated from the program in 2022, and Kayla Konwent, Wisconsin’s all-time home-run leader currently in her final season. Because of her immeasurable role the last couple years, Schwartz has found herself in that group.

“I’m not necessarily the most vocal, but as a pitcher, I lead the team whether I like it or not,” she said. “It’s been amazing to learn from people like Kayla and Ally. We have a bunch of leaders on the team who lead in different ways, and that’s what makes a good team.”


Could Schwartz, who has coached youth softball during summers in Minnesota, have a future in softball beyond her Badger career? She believes so. If not coaching, she hopes to work with sports in some capacity — perhaps applying her consumer behavior and marketplace studies degree to the business side of sports. 

“There’s a lot of stuff that makes me happy, but coaching and being around the girls is something I’ve found really fulfilling,” Schwartz said. “I hope I can find a career that ties all my interests together.”

Finishing strong

Opening the season with four straight losses in Mexico was disappointing for the Badgers, but it opened their eyes to areas needing improvement. Lineup adjustments, improved defense and Monticelli’s rapid development have righted the ship as Wisconsin progresses through its early-season schedule. 

“[Mexico] definitely changed how we go about practice and go about our business,” Schwartz said. “We know nothing’s going to be easy. We have a lot of youth, so people are just shaking out the jitters. I think we’ll hit our stride going into Big Tens.”

Wisconsin begins its gauntlet of conference matchups March 24 at Michigan State. The regular season ends May 7, leading into the Big Ten Tournament. After that, if the Badgers have their way, they’ll make a trip to the NCAA Tournament. 

Injuries and performance will force adjustments to Wisconsin’s depth chart between now and the postseason. When the lights are brightest in May, however, Schwartz will be in the circle. 

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