Lucas at Large: Road a challenging one for Healy and her Badgers

SB_120219_Healy_Yvette.jpegThe schedule is daunting: six road weekends and 26 games before the home opener.

"Fatigue is definitely something you have to consider,'' said second-year Wisconsin softball coach Yvette Healy. "Our season is long, it's a marathon.

"It's important to play well every game, but it's more about improvement --  seeing where you match up (early in the season) -- and working on the game plan to get better.''

After winning 30 games last season -- a victory total that has been reached only five previous times in school history -- the expectations are higher than normal for the Badgers, who began their daunting road stretch this weekend at South Florida's tournament in Tampa.

Sustaining that success is the challenge for Healy, who has already taken some positive strides in changing the culture of the program. By her own admission, she knows her work has just begun.

"We did create some momentum last season,'' she said. "But the fact that we had so many come-from-behind wins, half of our victories, you know that those could easily go the other direction.

"It's really going to be a challenging year for the team and our staff. But we're going into it with our eyes wide open. It's not going to be simple to walk in and replicate what we did last year.''

The Badgers, who were 30-23 overall and 9-11 in the Big Ten, return eight starters and all three pitchers. But they must replace center fielder Jennifer Krueger; a difference-maker on the base paths.

Citing the vagaries of her sport, Healy said, "It's such a fickle game. It's so much about getting the right hop here or there. We were fortunate last year, but we created some of that magic, too.''

At the moment, injuries are an issue. "We've got more than last year at this time,'' she said.

Karla Powell, Molly Spence, Mary Massei and Cassandra Darrah are four key pieces to the puzzle, and each has been forced to overcome physical hurdles leading up to the spring competition.

Given the All-Big Ten value in a majority of the cases, Healy won't rush anyone. "This first weekend,'' she said, "is about managing to keep our talent healthy and easing them back in, too.''

Nonetheless, there's an anticipation level with the opening games.

"Everybody wants to see how you match up,'' Healy agreed. "It's a good litmus test to let you know what else you need to work on. The first weekend doesn't make or break you.

"But it sets the tone for realizing how good you can be, or how much harder you have to work.''

Much of the out-of-season work has been centered on conditioning.  Healy pointed out that strength coach Stephanie Housh "makes it sport-specific'' and has "done a phenomenal job.''

"We've gotten a little creative on the coaching end, too,'' Healy went on. "We've tried not to have as much down time that you typically see in a baseball game or a softball practice.''
To the extent, she said, where "they are swinging and not breaking a sweat.''

That creativity has resulted in the use of jump ropes and medicine balls. "We're making our team get physically drained,'' she said, "in addition to having to perform those high-level hitting skills.''

A year of maturity should benefit the returning players. "We didn't add a ton to the program,'' said Healy, who also retained her staff. "We brought in just one recruited player this season.''

That has piqued her interest to see how it all comes together. Healy singled out sophomore shortstop Stephanie Peace for having the potential and the "ability to be a marquee player.''

Meghan McIntosh will anchor the pitching staff. "She has worked hard in the off-season, gotten healthy and shown leadership,'' Healy said. "It'll be interesting to see if you can put it all together.''

What does Healy want to see out of her team by the end of the month?

"We'll want to see our pitchers keeping us in games; our pitchers having command,'' she said. "Giving us a chance to win every single game is a really big thing.

"From an offensive standpoint, I think we have a lot of balance and I'm hoping we take a good aggressive approach -- I want to see our speed and power come together.

"I hope we can come out of the gate really strong and create some energy. The first couple of weeks, I want to show how excited we are to get out of the cold and get on the dirt (the diamond).

"I want to start setting the tone for the season.''