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Badger Blog: Finding inspiration

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In this week's Badger Blog, head coach Yvette Healy talks about the inspiration the team gets from playing in Madison.

With one week to go until we open the 2014 softball season, the team is focusing on getting better, and enjoying the journey. It's been a cold snowy winter in Madison, yet everyone on campus seems happy and optimistic, especially the softball team. Maybe it's the excitement surrounding Super Bowl Sunday, with former Badger favorites Russell Wilson and Montee Ball leading the way, or the fact that we can watch basketball, hockey and wrestling compete on campus in the winter. The fact is, there's inspiration all around us: from the success of Wisconsin volleyball competing in the national championship game this fall, to basketball, hockey and wrestling being ranked in the top-10 and top-25, there are some amazing Badger athletes training all around us in the weight room, on the ramps and in the field house.

One of our players said, "It's easy to be inspired when you're living a life that you love." What's not to love about Madison? It's such an amazing town! So many universities are in cities that you'd never visit unless you were looking at that school. But Madison is a tourist hotspot and family destination. People from all over the country want to see what all the excitement is about. This might be one of the healthiest, happiest towns I've ever seen. Families here are so outdoorsy. You see kids sledding, ice skating, skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing and jogging, regardless of the temperature. If you can love your life and community when it's cold and snowy, and you're practicing indoors, imagine how much better everything gets when spring sets in, and you can get out on the field, bike trails and lakes.

Badger Blog: The first two days of practice

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In today's Badger Blog, outfielders Mary Massei and Maria Van Abel give an update on the first two practices and provide insight into the Badgers' chalk talks. 

After a rejuvenating winter break, the whole team is back in Madison for the start up of another promising season. We got right to work on Monday morning getting in a great workout before our first official spring semester practice. We have been doing a lot of situation drills in the McClain facility and are excited to finally be using the new Goodman indoor complex. The coaches have done an outstanding job of incorporating chalk talks and meetings to keep a balance of our athletic and mental training for the upcoming season.

Coach Schneider started things off with a chalk talk on Monday afternoon in which he analyzed the neurological perspective on vision and the strike zone in the game of softball. Having coaches who dedicate themselves to learning and absorbing as much outside academic information as they can has made such a difference in our program in these past three years. Knowing our coaches go above and beyond what the average coach might be willing to do makes buying in to their philosophy so much easier for us as players.

In our chalk talk on Tuesday, coach Healy elaborated on our own team's culture through a business lens by looking at the different strategies and values of some of the most successful companies. Coach started out by recognizing the difference between simply claiming values verses actually living them. We looked at our own program and saw how our main values and priorities aligned with some of the Fortune 500 companies coach presented us. After reflecting on coach Healy's presentation, we all took it upon ourselves to see if we were holding ourselves accountable to live out the values of the program. 

Our countdown to Florida is on, currently at 23 days, and we can't wait to get our season started!

Badger Blog: Most Improved

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In today's blog, head coach Yvette Healy writes about the Badgers' 2014 resolution to get better every day. 

Dreamers wish they were the best player, while doers work to get better every day. #MIP #Badgersoftball2014

As we look to 2014, so many people talk about wanting to be the best this New Year. They want to be the best team, player, company or CEO. Who doesn't want to win, accomplish and achieve? Here in Madison, we're shifting our goals for 2014. Instead of worrying about being the best, why not focus on being better? Isn't that what life is all about, getting better? When we get caught up in being number one, we lose focus to the periphery.  Does it really matter what's going on all around us? Wouldn't we be better suited being the best version of ourselves, constantly growing, climbing and making progress?

For the Badger softball team, 2014 really needs to be about improvement. Our schedule is so challenging, that we certainly can't walk out from the snow to the dirt in February and arrive. It's a journey, and a progression. Hopefully we'll have the opportunity to not only play Florida, Texas A&M, Arizona State, Washington and Arizona, early, but also again late in the season. We all know it's not where you start, but where you finish. Each season's a new opportunity to rewrite the history books and start a new legacy.

At what point did most improved became a dirty word? Everyone wants to be the most valuable player, not the most improved player. Fans look at the MIP as a consolation trophy, like being named best personality instead of homecoming queen. Sure being the MVP is prestigious, but it's also limiting. There's only a handful of MVP's in the country, but the lions-share of teams and programs are made of hard-working, blue-collar athletes that are on the path to improvement. In life, our greatest feelings of pride and accomplishment come not from the trophy, but from the climb. Improvement really is empowerment, it factors in who you are, where you came from, the adversity and inequality of where you started, ultimately measuring how far you've come.

Talking about improvement forces you to take a good, hard look at the past, understanding who you are, and where you came from. Improvement doesn't come from ignoring, or running from your origins, but rather from understanding, and accepting your heritage. The imperfection of your past is beautiful, because it's part of who you are, it helped you to arrive in the amazing place you are today with empathy and gratitude. Some programs and people have always had success. But if your past was different, challenging and checkered, you can always make strides. There's a lot of beauty in the struggle. Every climber knows that the path of improvement is paved with hundreds of people who loved, cared, worked hard and laid the groundwork for your journey.  

So, for our 2014 resolution, Wisconsin softball doesn't want just to be the best team in the Big Ten, or the country, we want to grow and improve as a program, and as people. Of course the Badgers want to win the Big Ten. It's every student-athlete's dream to say they were part of a Big Ten championship program. Yet reality, history, and a lack of legacy are stacked against us. We'll play 23 Big Ten conference games against eight B1G teams this spring. We'll see Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Purdue at home, and Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern and Penn State on the road. Wisconsin has 95 wins in 281 career games against those teams, that's a .338 winning percentage. We've got our work cut out. Yet we're blessed with 20 student-athletes in the Badger softball family that can win most improved every day, every practice and every game this season. The journey starts Monday! #MIP  

The turnaround

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In today's Badger Blog, head coach Yvette Healy writes about the inspiration of a turnaround and shares inspiring stories of success. 

The Turnaround: It's what everyone is looking for in sports. How to go from good to great. How to change the culture of a program. How do you create a winning environment and establish a legacy when there are no All-Americans to set the tone, when there is no College World Series experience on the field. If you don't have the player of the year, pitcher of the year, newcomer of the year or coach of the year on your staff, how do you win conference, especially if it's for the first time in program history? 

We all love the turnaround, because it speak to our hearts. Deep down we all want to believe that anything is possible. We want sports to prove that regardless of who you are, where you're from, what your history is, or how things have always been, we all have a shot at greatness. We all have a chance to achieve in life, to overcome adversity, to change the course of history, create a new, successful path where we thrive instead of falter, where we flourish for years of prosperity, instead of repeating the same mistakes our parents and predecessors got trapped in.

I have three stories of turnaround that I've seen, experienced and lived. When you hear stories of turnaround, when you read about them, retell them and soak them in, they change your life. That pessimism that things don't change, those crippling subconscious doubts don't seem so logical anymore. There's a fundamental shift in your beliefs, in your outlook, and in your heart. Suddenly when you see the turnaround, and when you live it at your university, in your teams, and with your kids, you see eyes, hearts, and minds open up to the reality that anything is possible. Life doesn't have to be the same. History doesn't have to repeat itself, and the vicious cycle of loss, failure and negativity can be broken.

We're not there yet with our softball team at Wisconsin. We've shown moments of brightness, and glimpses of success, but we're far from arrived. My gratification at this moment comes from being on the path. The hearts and minds of our athletes, coaches and families are in the right place. The optimism and energy right now outweigh the lack of legacy, and struggles of the past. For me, that's progress and success. Being on the path, training, believing, setting the trajectory and moving in the right direction is a step towards greatness. No matter how small the step is, on a long and arduous journey, at least we're on that yellow brick road, and headed somewhere with a skip in our step.

I'll share those three stories of turnaround with you, and books and readings that supplement those messages. The first turnaround I witness is the most powerful one in my life. I've grown to appreciate it more with age, and after having kids of my own. The book I'd like to recommend is "Inside Out Coaching", by Joe Ehrmann. If you want to be great at what you do, you have to dig deep, understand yourself. "Inside Out Coaching" asks every coach four tough questions: Why do you coach? Why do you coach the way you do? What does it feel like to be coached by you? What's your definition of success? 

We have a bible study at UW and we're reading "Inside out Coaching". To answer the questions, "why do you coach", and "wdo you coach the way you do", the FCA bible study challenges coaches to understand themselves and their upbringing. Every person parents and coaches the way they were parented or coached, unless they make a conscious decision to change. This is a tough fact to swallow, especially if there are hurtful things in our past when our parents or coaches failed us. 

When I look at my past, I can't help but be amazed by my mom. Her grandparents were all born in Italy and Poland, and didn't speak English. Her parents, Grandma Helen and Grandpa Joe, worked in factories on the Southside of Chicago, and didn't have much more than an eighth grade education. The turnaround for our family, came when my mom chose to be the first one to go to college. She earned a four year RN degree, and eventually her master's degree in nursing, all while raising two girls, supporting our family and battling through a divorce. Her grit, selflessness and character are amazing. She changed the trajectory of our family and our lives. She sacrificed to send my sister and me to a Catholic high school, and always stressed the importance of faith, family, education and hard-work. 

I have a high level of respect and appreciation for anyone who overcomes tough odd in their lives, and accomplishes things that have never been done. The trailblazers are the most inspirational traveler. Anyone can walk through a door that's already been opened, and follow a crowd down a path that many have walked. It takes someone special to forge a new path, and go places that have never been seen.

I witnessed turnaround number two as a student-athlete at DePaul University in Chicago. While getting recruited by the Blue Demons, the team made its first two NCAA softball appearances, and was knocked out without a win in both. Our class wanted to make history at DePaul, we went on to earn two sweet sixteen appearances before advancing to the Women's College World series for the first time in program history in 1999, finishing tied for third in the country.  

This was a life-changing moment for our team, the student-athletes and families, and the program for years to come. Despite being a cold weather school in a small conference, over the past 15 years, DePaul has advanced to Women's College World Series four times. Clearly history has been changed and a winning legacy has been forged in that program. When I read books like, "How Children Succeed" by Paul Tough, it's no wonder that the education system in the US is making drastic curriculum changes to stop focusing so much on facts, figures and concentrated skills, but rather develop grit, character, and the ability to persevere through adversity to help children succeed in school, their careers and life. 

The final turnaround that I've witnessed has taken place here at Wisconsin. I'd like to say that I'm talking about our softball program, but we certainly aren't there yet. Yet one of the biggest reasons my family and I chose to leave Chicago and take a chance on a struggling Big Ten softball team, was the story of coach Alvarez's 1994 Rose Bowl Championship team. After 10 years without a Bowl appearance, new football coach Barry Alvarez turned Wisconsin football and the entire athletics department around with a Big Ten championship, a trip to the Rose Bowl and a momentous win over UCLA. 

This was a seminal moment in the success of UW athletics. The 1994 team's ability to win the Rose Bowl filled the stands here at Camp Randall, and started the push, excitement and influx of money that allowed for all of the amazing facilities, gear, budgets, and staff that we enjoy today. The success that Badger football, and the entire Wisconsin athletics department has had over the past twenty years can be traced back to this 1994 Rose Bowl team that over-achieved, made history, and put Wisconsin on the map. Beginning in 1994, Wisconsin has advanced to six Rose Bowl games. That's an amazing winning legacy, created and sustained right in front of our eyes.
One of the former players from the 1994 Rose Bowl team talks about why that team was so special. "I think of the type of guys that made up the lead¬ership of that team and just the character of the team," Saleh said. "I don't think everyone was highly touted coming out of high school.  Everyone had to earn it; nothing was really given anyone. We just had a group of guys who really liked football and, in general, we were good people; we had a good work ethic."

Coach Alvarez's book, "Don't Flinch" talks a lot about the turnaround for Wisconsin football, and the rise of a powerful and successful athletics department with a family atmosphere. 

Volunteering at Heartland Farm Sanctuary

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Nov. 6, 2013

In this week's Badger Blog, senior Mary Massei writes about the team's trip to Heartland Farm Sanctuary and impact volunteering has on the team and the community. 

This past weekend our Badger softball team had the opportunity to volunteer at Heartland Farm Sanctuary, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping homeless farm animals in Wisconsin. Heartland also reaches out to the youth and works with young adults with disabilities. Their farm allows the youth to get away from their every day lives and assist in doing barn chores. 
As a program, we thought it would be a great idea to take just a couple hours out of our Saturday afternoon to help prepare this organization for the winter months.  By working together as a team, we helped clean up the barn, interact with the animals and build multiple chicken coops. Usually when you see the softball team covered in dirt it's from stealing bases but this time it was from putting hard work into manual labor helping out a good cause within the community. 
Volunteering at Heartland showed me more than that we can handle tools, but it showed me that our program is capable of doing big things when we all invest and join together. For some of the girls it was their first time even stepping foot on a farm, but when assigned a task, everyone put all of their effort into it. We may have been out of our element and had to deal with some adversity, but that didn't stop us from seizing the moment and getting the job done. 
When I see the team working hard doing volunteer work together, it reminds me of how blessed we are to be a part of this program. It may be just a couple hours out of our Saturday afternoons, but our services truly impact the community and organizations we help out. 

The road to the World Series starts here

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In today's Badger Blog, head coach Yvette Healy writes about the importance of the off-season. 

We just finished our fall season, winning two games against UW Parkside. It's been a beautiful fall in Madison. Softball is switching gears and starting individual workouts this week. Instead of practicing 20 hours a week, we drop down to six hours of lifting and conditioning and two hours of skill instruction. This is the critical part in the season, when the hardest working kids with the most passion can really improve. 

Below are a few notes from our chalk talk with our team, preparing them for our winter workouts. 

The road to the World Series starts here:

"You may not be able to do great things, but you can do small things with great love"-Mother Teresa

What's you plan for the fall? You have about 15 weeks, or 100 days until opening day at South Florida when we match up with No. 25 South Florida and No. 5 Florida on day one. How are you going to get to where you need to be as an individual? How are you going to get to where you need to be, to help the team? That's the bigger question. This isn't about you, and what you can and can't do, or what you're willing or unwilling to do, it's about your team. It's about the team needing you, and your special skills and talents. You were brought here for a reason. You've been given this amazing opportunity to be a Badger for a purpose. Are you too busy with school, your social life, and personal problems to give the team the focus and attention it deserves? Are you too busy to train?

"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe"- Abraham Lincoln

Are you passionately committed to this softball program? Are you the best player you can be right now? Games are not won or lost in February or May, they are won in October, November and December. You can't show up on game day and get a few extra swings off the small ball machine to magically hit better that day. You can't run a few extra sprints before the game and think you'll steal more bases today. You have to put the work in now, six days a week, every morning, from October through May to have the honor of playing in June. Championships are won and lost at 6 a.m., when most people sleep and someone wakes up to train. 

The questions you have to ask yourselves are these; Are you in the best shape of your life? Do you have great speed, agility, and endurance? Are you strong? How's your hitting? Can you handle both sides of the plate? Can you hit change-ups? Do you understand and know the strike zone? Can you sacrifice or squeeze in any count? Do you have a great first step on defense? Do you take great angles? How's your transition? How's your arm strength? Are you confident with your backhand? Do you know your base coverage, bunt, slap and steal responsibilities? Can you run down balls over your head? Do you come through balls consistently and field the short hop? Can you pick balls at bases for forces and tag plays? Will you sacrifice your body to stop a bad throw?  Can you dive and catch line drives and pop ups? How's your jump stealing? Do you accelerate into your slide? Can you slide head first?  Can you hit your spots pitching? Do you have an effective first pitch, change up, and strike out pitch to both righties and lefties?

You need a specific plan to fix your deficiencies. You have to collaborate with your coaches, trainers and strength staff to work smart and work efficiently. Your team needs you. Create a calendar, come up with a plan, use the new indoor facility, and commit yourself to the teams' success.  You have a little more than 100 days to prepare for the best season of your life.

Performance under pressure

Thumbnail image for Rins.JPGIn today's Badger Blog, head coach Yvette Healy writes about the beautiful fall weather, championship rings and the new schedule. 

It's a beautiful fall in Madison. The leaves are changing colors, and the weather is gorgeous, with temperatures in the 70's. We got in four great games in last weekend against Illinois State and Northern Illinois. Our stands were packed with family and friends as we handed out our Big Ten championship rings to the 2013 team. 

Coming off of such a memorable season, it was fun to take the time to appreciate what a great run we had. Our sport is so challenging, that you're always on to the next thing. You continue to raise your expectations, raise your goals and increase the challenges you take on. After playing this fall, it's apparent that we've lost a lot of great players through graduation. We had some tremendous pitching and offense in that senior class. It's important as a team that we really study the past to understand how we achieved, and why. 

Wisconsin softball is still a growing, up-and-coming program. It was fun to break into the top 25 last year, but we still have a long way to go to become a top-10 team. We've been blessed with a great group of student-athletes that are emotionally invested, who love this sport and their teammates, and work extremely hard. I'd take passion and work-ethic any day over complacent talent. This year will certainly be the same. As we look ahead to our spring schedule, we have more games against top 10 and top 25 teams than ever before. It's going to take a lot of selfless leadership to prepare for this kind of challenge. 

Our focus this season is on selfless mental toughness. We're excited to see our team match up against the top talent in the country early on, so we can learn, grow, face adversity and get better. Our staff is committed to creativity. We're studying ourselves, the game and our opponents, to pick up 100 ways that we can get better, through strategy, drills and execution. 

We're fascinated right now with the social side of athletics. How do we get our kids peaking at the right time? How can we put them in the best position to succeed, statistically? How do we create momentum on our side, and stress for our opponents? Our team activities, drill work and chalk talks are focusing on physical performance under pressure, mental toughness in the face of adversity and skills and drills that prepare our team to play with the best competition in the country.

Badger Blog: Hall of Fame week

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In today's Badger Blog, head coach Yvette Healy writes about the start of a new school year and Andrea Kirchberg's induction into the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame.  

Welcome back Badger softball fans. We are thrilled to have everyone back on campus and to kick-off the 2013-14 season. This first week of classes has been filled with activities, events and inspiration in Madison. We'll try to share some stories and photos from our exciting first week.

On August 30, Andrea Kirchberg became the first Badger softball student-athlete inducted into the Wisconsin Athletics Hall of Fame. In her amazing career, Andrea set numerous school records for wins (87), strikeouts (1156) and more, while leading her team to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances in 2001 and 2002.

Our entire team attended the Hall of Fame reception. We were so inspired, hearing about Andrea's determination, grit and legacy. She's faced a great deal of personal adversity throughout her life, and those challenges have never stopped Andrea from achieving unseen heights in athletic accomplishments. 

We were all touched when one of Andrea's teammates, Boo Gillette shared a few stories about what Andrea meant to her as a leader in the Badger softball program.  

"Andrea was one of the first ones to take me under her wing and show me campus and a FUN time! She always made sure I was taken care of at practice and not pushed around by the upper classmen. She was the one who made me realize that I could be a true leader as a freshman and win a starting spot.
Andrea was a work horse for the team. We always knew if she was on the mound; we had a shot to win. She threw the majority of the innings while she was there and never complained. She pitched through broken ribs, an injured forearm and many other soreness issues from over use. She was very fit and pushed herself to always be stronger in the weight room.

Andrea had a really hard childhood. She never used that as an excuse. She used it as a motivating factor. She is one tough cookie! I love Andrea Kirchberg ... and always will. She is the type of friend that you can go months or years without talking to and when you see her, it is as if you were with her the day before. She was such a stud on the mound and such a loyal friend in life. Andrea truly has it all: beauty, smarts, athletic ability and a kind heart. I am so proud of Andrea for being inducted into the Hall of Fame. She is by far the greatest pitcher in Wisconsin softball history and no one is more deserving of this honor."

Watching Andrea get inducted into the Hall of Fame, and seeing how current and former Badger softball athletes responded to the event was really inspirational. It's always incredible to meet someone who changes the course of history and the trajectory of a program. Andrea helped put Wisconsin softball on the map and her records still stand today. Her ability to battle adversity with grace and courage is incredible. Even now, you can sense her competitiveness and drive. She's such a strong role model for our Wisconsin softball family. We're all blessed for having the opportunity to hear her story and share in the pride and accomplishments she's brought to the Badger softball program. 

Achievements of the Year: Darrah named Big Ten tournament MVP

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Over the course of two weeks, UW Athletics will look back on the Badgers' biggest accomplishments during the 2012-13 season.

Twenty-one innings of work in the circle and a Big Ten tournament title capped of a record setting weekend for Badgers' pitcher Cassandra Darrah. Darrah led Wisconsin to its first ever Big Ten tournament championship and solidified the team's first NCAA tournament bid since 2005. 

Darrah earned Big Ten tournament MVP accolades after earning a 3-0 record in the tournament and recording a 1.67 ERA. In the title game against Minnesota, Darrah pitched a gem, allowing only two hits while striking out eight.

A first-team All-Big Ten and a second-team NFCA Great Lakes All-Region honoree, Darrah finished the season with a UW single-season record .791 winning percentage while earning a 27-7 ledger. Her 27 victories were second in school history, and her 231.1 innings pitched were the fifth-most in a single season at Wisconsin. Darrah tossed 27 complete games in 2013, which ranks fourth in school history, and her nine Big Ten wins ranks second all-time at UW. 

Darrah, a native of Corydon, Iowa, earned Big Ten Pitcher of the Week twice this season, and tossed UW's first no-hitter in 12 seasons. She pitched a complete game shutout in Wisconsin's 8-0 win over No. 16 Stanford, and tossed a complete game in a triumph over No. 6 Michigan. She tied a career-high with 10 strikeouts in a 6-4 win over Notre Dame. Darrah also earned UW's Defensive Player of the Year for the second time in her career. 

In only her third year, Darrah is tied for second in program history with 65 career victories, and her 2.17 career ERA ranks second. Her .684 winning percentage is the best in UW history, and her 19 shutouts rank second. Darrah has punched out 424 batters in her career, which is Wisconsin's sixth-best mark, and her 67 complete games rank third all-time.

Achievements of the Year: Softball team wins Big Ten tournament

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Over the course of two weeks, UW Athletics will look back on the Badgers' biggest accomplishments during the 2012-13 season.

A trip to Lincoln, Neb., bared fruit for the Wisconsin softball team in 2013, as the Badgers posted a 3-0 record in Bowlin Stadium en route to their first ever Big Ten tournament title. 

Wisconsin posted a school record 16-7 Big Ten record, earning them the fourth seed in the league's first tournament since 2008. 

Opening action against fifth seeded Northwestern, the Badgers earned a 3-0 victory to advance to the semifinals where they were tasked with the job of defeating the league's regular season champion, No. 6 Michigan. 

With the odds against them, the Badgers knocked off the No. 1 seeded Wolverines for the first time since 2002. A six-run first inning was topped off by a pinch hit grand slam by Steffani LaJeunesse and Cassandra Darrah went the distance on the mound in the 9-3 victory. The win propelled the Badgers to the title game against Minnesota, setting up a rematch of sorts. 

The Gophers earned the series win over the Badgers on April 6-7, despite a no-hitter from senior Meghan McIntosh. Pitching in her third-straight game, Darrah took matters into her own hands, holding Minnesota to just two hits. Wisconsin's offense continued to impress, scoring nine runs on seven hits. 

The victory marked the fourth-seeded Badgers' first Big Ten tournament championship and secured the conference's automatic berth to the NCAA tournament, their first appearance in the national event since 2005 and fourth in program history.

Darrah was named the Big Ten tournament's Most Outstanding player after posting a 3-0 record and pitching all 21.0 innings over the tournament. Darrah, together with LaJeunesse and Maria Van Abel, was named to the 2013 Big Ten All-Tournament team.