Lucas at Large: Badgers set sights on Lincoln and Big Ten tournament

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Wisconsin softball coach Yvette Healy can measure how far her program has grown by merely taking an inventory on the number of players the Badgers have put on All-Big Ten teams.

In 2010, her first season, Healy had three on the third team: Letty Olivarez, Jennifer Krueger and Shannel Blackshear. It was the most since the UW had four players on the third team in 2005.

In 2011, Karla Powell became only the third player in school history - the first since 2002 - to be named first-team All-Big Ten. Mary Massei was on the second team and Krueger the third team.

 This season, the Badgers had three players recognized on the first team: Massei, Cassandra Darrah and Whitney Massey. Kendall Grimm and Meghan McIntosh were honored on the second team.

"It's huge," Healy said of the progress that has been made in this area. "You want, of course, to get national attention and have All-Americans in the program. But this is the stepping stone.

"You've got to be able to do it within the conference first. When we took over a few years ago, we talked about how many first-team all-conference players there were in the history of the program.

"They had two."

The next step is the most challenging - garnering All-American recognition.

"What you do down the stretch will have a lot to do with it," said Healy, a two-time All-American at DePaul during her playing days. "I think we have players who will at least get a look.

"When you get to this win-or-go-home postseason-type of play, you have to be able to perform against the best teams when it counts the most. The most important games are the games to come."

The best marketing tool is performance, especially on the bigger stages, like this weekend's Big Ten tournament in Lincoln, Neb. The Badgers earned a first-round bye and open play on Friday.

If nothing else, they won't need a GPS to find Bowlin Stadium.

Wisconsin has played three games there in each of the last two seasons.

In 2012, the Badgers upset Nebraska, 3-1, in the series opener; snapping a 16-game home winning streak for the Huskers. Darrah allowed just six hits.

In mid-April, Darrah again limited Nebraska to six hits and only two runs and received even more offensive support from her teammates. The Badgers won 5-2 on the strength of a four-run sixth inning.

The fact that Wisconsin has won at least one game on each of its last two trips to Lincoln is something that Healy is hoping to build on and it starts with the pitching, Darrah and McIntosh.

"We're thrilled Cassandra got first-team all-conference,' Healy said. "But she still has a long ways to go to become the player that she has the ability to be.

"To have nine wins in the conference is a big deal and to win at Nebraska last year and this year just shows that she's had some really clutch Big Ten wins for us."

Can there be any application of muscle memory for Darrah? "We hope," Healy said. "There are not many pitchers who can say they know what it's like to win at Nebraska."

McIntosh struggled against Michigan State but Healy is counting on her resiliency.

"We do expect her to bounce back," she said. "She's got a bunch of big wins, especially in conference. To throw a no-hitter against Minnesota at their place shows what kind of pitcher she is."

Having thrown a no-hitter earlier in the season, McIntosh joined Andrea Kirchberg as the only pitchers in program history with two no-hitters to their credit. Darrah also had a no-hitter this spring.

Healy believes Massey, a converted infielder-outfielder, deserves some of the credit not only for making a seamless transition this season to catcher, but in managing the pitchers.

"When you catch three no-hitters in one season, you're doing something right behind the plate," Healy said. "She gets a lot of calls for the pitchers by doing a great job of framing (pitches).

"She also brings a real calming nature to the pitchers. She kind of sets the tempo and keeps them under control and that has given them more confidence in throwing to her."

The lack of postseason experience is obviously a concern for Healy. "A lot of the Big Ten teams have players who have played in the NCAA tournament and won," she said.

That the Badgers drew a record crowd (2,007) to Goodman Diamond for last Sunday's doubleheader split against Michigan State was a "great warm-up" for the Big Ten tournament, she said.

"We didn't play as well as we would have liked, we didn't deliver," Healy admitted. "But at least we got experience playing in that atmosphere under our belt and we're hoping to improve on it."

Healy isn't sure what it will take to make the NCAA tournament. "We've done everything we can to put ourselves in a great position," she said. "The last RPI came out and we were still 26.

"I like where we're at."

Especially since Lincoln has become such a home away from home.

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