Lucas at Large: Providing a spark

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Mary Massei's perseverance has manifested itself in many ways for the Wisconsin softball team which has rallied around her presence as a "spark-plug" and a "catalyst" at the top of the order.

For starters, the spunky freshman is back in the lineup after missing 14 games; the result of an outfield collision with a teammate that left Massei with a black-eye and three facial fractures.

Since returning, Massei has nine hits in 22 at-bats, including going 5-for-7 in a two-game series against Illinois. Most recently, her three-run homer sealed the Badgers doubleheader sweep at Iowa.

"When she was gone, we definitely missed her presence," said UW coach Yvette Healy.  "Other people stepped up and we still had some quality wins. But she brings another elite bat to the lineup.

"And that makes every other hitter stronger. Mary is a little spark-plug. Somebody has to be the catalyst and embrace doing that and she's that type of kid. People want to cheer for her."

That's due in large part to Massei overcoming thyroid cancer to play for the Badgers. After learning she was cancer free in December, she enrolled at the UW in January.

Given her resiliency, it should be pretty easy for Massei to shake off Saturday's loss to Michigan.

The same can be said for her Badger teammates who are hoping to make amends Sunday against the Wolverines in the 3 p.m. series wrap-up at Goodman Diamond in Madison.

Michigan presents the ultimate challenge.

The Wolverines have won 17 straight against the UW.

"We really understand that we're a big-time underdog," Healy said. "At the same time, it's a motivating factor and I think this team embraces being the underdog."

Welcome to Year One of Healy's rebuilding project; which has already topped expectations, considering how far the Badgers have come; the 26 wins are a testament to the turnaround.

But there's so much more ground to cover.

"As a staff," Healy said, "we've tried not to let the highs be too high, nor the lows too low. We keep focusing on getting better and the team has really bought into that and played hard."

Jennifer Krueger has been one of those players who has continued to improve. Krueger has 10 hits in her last 18 at-bats, including a single and a double in Saturday's 9-1 loss to the Wolverines.

"She has worked on adding another element to her offensive game," Healy said. "She was struggling and we challenged her to start swinging the ball a little bit more. She's redefined herself."

Despite some heart-breaking losses, the Badgers have managed to bounce back; a defining characteristic. Healy is counting on more of the same from her players on Sunday.

"I'm proud," she said, "that we've been able to sustain our energy level day-in and day-out. To do it once in awhile is great but when you do it on a regular basis that's something to be excited about."

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We really understand that we're a big-time underdog," Healy said. "At the same time, it's a motivating factor and I think this team embraces being the underdog."

Go Badgers!

ON WISCONSIN