As the snow melts and temperatures warm up, it is time to start thinking softball. The Badgers' first pitch of the 2013 season is on Feb. 8 and the season can't come soon enough. 2013 is bound to be a year full of tough tests, but the reward at the end of the season -- an NCAA regional bid -- will be worth the hard work.
Wisconsin is set to play one of the toughest schedules in program history, squaring off with six teams ranked or receiving votes in the USA Today/NFCA Division I Top 25 Preseason Poll, released Jan. 22, with the potential to face more at the Diamond 9 Tournament and in the Big Ten tournament.
The season starts with a trip to UNC-Charlotte where UW is set to play Notre Dame twice. The Fighting Irish received 43 votes in the poll, making them 26th on the list. Notre Dame, a 40-game winner in 2012, fell to Arizona in the final of the 2012 NCAA Tucson Regional.
Wisconsin's trip to Orlando from Feb. 22-24 holds the potential of another top-25 opponent. The tournament schedule won't be released until the end of January, but a year ago UW played Florida State, ranked No. 25 in the preseason poll, twice.
A trip west to California features the Badgers' toughest test of the early season. At the Easton Invitational, UW is scheduled to play No. 21 Stanford and No. 3 California. Cal, the No. 1-ranked team in the 2012 regional field, saw its season end against Alabama at the College World Series. The Crimson Tide went on to defeat Oklahoma and earn its first College World Series title.
At the Louisville Tournament in March, the Badgers are scheduled to play No. 22 North Carolina and No. 18 Louisville. Both teams were regional qualifiers in 2012, with the Tar Heels falling to Georgia in a regional final and the Cardinals losing to Michigan, also in a regional final.
The Big Ten season doesn't get any easier for the Badgers. UW will host Northwestern, a vote getter, at Goodman Diamond on March 27, and the return of the Big Ten tournament leaves the door open for a game against No. 15 Michigan.
A year ago, Wisconsin won a school-record 34 games -- an outstanding mark for the Badgers -- but did not receive one of the elusive bids to the regional tournament. This year, a tough schedule against ranked opponents will help Wisconsin build a resume worthy of a bid.
USA Today/NFCA Division I Top 25 Preseason Poll
4 Arizona State
11 Louisiana Lafayette
17 Texas A&M
22 North Carolina
25 Florida State
Others Receiving Votes: Notre Dame (43), Georgia Tech (29), Syracuse (27), Kentucky (23), Oregon State (22), Texas Tech (12), Virginia Tech (11), DePaul (10), Northwestern (5), BYU (4), Houston (3), Tulsa (2), Mississippi State (2), Illinois State (2), South Alabama (2).