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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.

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.

Regular season finale

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In today's Badger Blog, head coach Yvette Healy writes about the end of the regular season and the impressive season in the Big Ten. 

We're gearing up for the last weekend of regular season play in Madison. Wisconsin is 38-9 and our 15-5 record in conference has us sitting in second place in the Big Ten! 

We host Michigan State this weekend for a big three-game series. What Badgers fan doesn't love battling the Spartans? Friday's 6 p.m. game will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network, and there are a ton of fun activities all weekend. 

It's crazy to realize that this is only our second weekend at home this season; we've played 40 games on the road this spring. We can't wait to play in front of our family and friends, as we celebrate senior day for Maggie, Molly, Shannel, Kendall, Kelsey, Meghan and Whitney. 

Three Big Ten teams have a chance to earn the Big Ten championship in the final weekend of Big Ten play, with Michigan (17-2), Wisconsin (15-5) and Nebraska (14-5) vying for the conference crown. 

The Big Ten is one of three conferences, joining the SEC and Pac-12, with six or more teams in the top 50 of the latest RPI. Nebraska (sixth) climbed four spots this week, while Michigan (12th), Wisconsin (23rd), Minnesota (29th), Iowa (34th) and Northwestern (45th) are also among the top 50.

When you think about the amazing winning legacies that Michigan and Nebraska have built, it's impressive just to be mentioned in the same sentence as these powerhouse programs. They've combined for 16 world series appearances, and more than 30 conference championships. We know the Badgers softball program will grow and improve by osmosis and proximity, just being around and near great coaches like Carol Hutchins and Rhonda Revelle and their Huskers and Wolverines legacies in the Big Ten.

Mental toughness, leadership and faith

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In today's blog, head coach Yvette Healy writes about mental toughness, leadership and most importantly, faith. 

The thought for today is faith. When you're trying to build a program into having a national presence, the trip is long and arduous. It's no easy path year to year, and within each season. The fact is we've never had an all-American in our program. We lack that legacy, that winning tradition that so many of our opponents have. When you're building a new winning tradition, it's so easy to get impatient. Yet throughout the season, you're still in the journey. Even when you play well early in the year, you're just making strides, you haven't arrived yet. 

The toughest test of mental toughness and fortitude is faith. Can you get your team and staff to truly believe in a future that they have never seen? Can you get recruits and parents to buy into a vision that is yet to exist?

We are so proud of this team, and this group of young women forging the way, battling to be a Top-25 team. Yet when you're on the road for your first 30 games, you're facing adversity and challenges more extreme than your counterparts. You're in a truly challenging situation trying to create something, when the odds are stacked against you. 

This group is fighting the good fight, playing hard, and earning every step of progress we achieve. 

Today will be a great test of mental toughness, leadership and faith. 

Minnesota memories

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Keri McGee  #5, 2B
Years Lettered: 1996-1999
Hometown: San Jose, CA

Honestly, my biggest memory of Minnesota was that it was the first place our first team in 1995 ever played! It was fall ball and it was probably the coldest day in history of UW softball... and all we had were shorts! Regardless of the weather or our uniforms, it is one of my fondest memories because it was when we really started to feel like a team. We were all in it together and definitely started creating memories that very first weekend in Minnesota Good luck to the Badgers this weekend - keep up the great season!

Amanda Berg   #24, 1B/C
Years Lettered: 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000
Hometown: Chippewa Falls, WI

I completely second Keri's comments... it was the first away game of the program's career -- that is where it started -- the score was so horrible that day that I vowed to never let that happen again to our border rival or anyone else. We realized that we had a long way to go but we were beginning something special for our school and for many women who would come after us. When you look at the pictures from that day, you will see many smiles on our faces, not because we won but because we realized what we had just begun. From then on, we continued to battle with them and even started winning the rivalry. It had to start somewhere and we may have lost that day, but the program continues almost 20 years later! Best of luck today ladies and I can't wait to read about the wins! You are making all of us alumni proud this season and we hope it continues right into a Big Ten championship and a berth to the NCAA tournament! And just be thankful you don't have to play in shorts in 30 degree weather...vour legs were so pink that day it looked like we were wearing red pants!

Athena Vasquez   #24, INF
Years Lettered: 2004-2007
Hometown: Costa Mesa, CA

I have a painful memory against the Gophers. Three cracked ribs after colliding with a runner for a force out and almost missing the Big Ten tournament back in 2005. 

If I could, here's some wisdom for each game, possibly reiterating coach Healy: One pitch, one out, one inning at a time. All your training in the off season prepared you for these coming weeks, so relax. Your muscle memory will take over.

Focus on what you can control. Be aware of your stress level. Remember to approach each inning fresh, use your positive self talk and encourage your teammates with positive affirmations. Keep each other calm and confident. 

Have fun Badgers!! 

Karla Powell  #32, 1B/DP
Years Lettered: 2009-2012
Hometown: Ashburn, VA

I remember my freshman year we played home against Minnesota.  I was up in the bottom of the 7th with two outs and Jen Krueger was on third base.  I hit the ball to the first baseman and it hit off her glove and as the second baseman grabbed the ball and was diving for first. I also dove into first and was called safe and won the game. It was one of the greatest memories playing at Goodman Diamond.

Dana Rasmussen  #10, C/UT
Years Lettered: 2008-2011
Hometown: Madison, WI

My sophomore year. We beat them the last game of the season with a walk off. With two outs, Karla Powell hit a ball to the first baseman, who booted it (not a hard shot, mind you). Karla dove into first base head first and was safe, scoring the winning run. Even though that was only our 15th win of the season and there were absolutely NO hopes of a tournament, it seriously felt like we just won the World Series.

That won't happen this season because these girls are doing great. So proud of all of them!

Broken windows

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In today's Badger Blog, head coach Yvette Healy talks about the broken window theory and fixing the broken windows on the team and in life. 

Our staff had a great discussion yesterday about the broken window theory. Actually we've been meeting with our players all week, seeking out problems and issues that have gone unsolved or unnoticed in the program up until this point. They say winning washes over a lot of problems. The only difficulty with that maximum is that nothing is being solved. An unaddressed issue doesn't disappear just because you're not forced to look at it.

One of our student-athletes left her notebook in our office after visiting yesterday. The page was flipped open to the broken window theory. The broken window theory states that in neighborhoods or communities where broken windows go unfixed, there is a higher incidence of crime and littering than in the same community where a similar broken window on a house or building gets repaired. Thus a seemingly insignificant act of fixing and maintaining a broken part has bigger implications on the psyche of the community and the choices others make.

I'm sure the broken window theory was not written to reflect culture in sport, team chemistry or personal discipline, yet our staff couldn't help but to apply this theory to our team. How many times does each of us choose to overlook small problems for the sake of not rocking the boat? How often do we let little broken windows in our lives go unfixed due to lack of time, or the seeming insignificance of the problem? Have we really taken the time to study and understand the implications of our actions, and sometimes more importantly, our inaction?

The two words that come to mind -- when I think of the broken window theory -- are neglect and vigilance. Those words are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Neglect is most closely associated with what we fail to do, the action that we choose not to take, failing our responsibility to guard and protect.  Neglect often comes when we're oblivious to problems or issues, failing to take action where needed. Conversely, vigilance is often associated with an alert and watchful eye, seeking to solve potential problems before they arise. 

Our staff has worked hard to create a positive, competitive atmosphere that encourages hard work, passion and effort. Once you've created that environment, it becomes even harder to maintain and protect that culture. Yet how often do the broken windows in our programs and on our teams go unnoticed or unfixed? 

From a cultural standpoint, small issues and problems that go unaddressed and unresolved send a message to the community. If we choose not to fix broken windows in our lives and within our team, what does that say about our values and culture?  We may be creating an environment that perpetuates laziness, bad attitudes and poor mental approaches, not by our action, but rather our inaction. When we neglect our responsibility as coaches to care for our environment and protect the culture on our team, it makes it easier for those around us to neglect responsibility and fail to take appropriate action. 

Hopefully we addressed a few problems and fixed a few broken windows this week, as we prepare for two very difficult series on the road at Minnesota and Nebraska. It's never easy to face Top-20 and Top-30 teams on the road, especially in the middle of the season. Hopefully the team's hard-work, preparation and vigilance pays off during this challenging stretch. 

Yvette Healy
University of Wisconsin Softball

Words of wisdom

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In this week's Badger Blog, we caught up with four former Badgers to get their words of wisdom for the team. 

Anastasia (Ana) Austin  #16, UT/OF
Years Lettered: 2002-2005
Hometown: Elburn, Ill.

1. Have fun! Keep things in perspective. Softball is a game, not life or death. If you mess up, do better next time and don't dwell on it. 
2. Play for those who can't play. There are women and children out there battling disease, injuries, abuse, neglect, poverty, etc. who would love to be on a field right now but can't. You are lucky to be where you are. Play for yourself, for those who helped you get there, and for those who wish they could be there. Honor all of them by playing your best. 
3. Remember, bad days happen. It's how you respond to them and move forward that define you as a player.

Courtney Coleman  #21, 3B/OF
Years Lettered: 1996-1998
Hometown: Carmichael, Calif.

Coaches not only help us with the technical, mental and physical aspects of the game, they also inspire and motivate us. Much of our ability to compete and win is due to mental prowess followed by physical skill. I feel the most important thing to remember as a player is that you are part of an elite group of women, competing at a level many only dream to achieve. Love every minute of it, especially when it's hard; and have FUN!

Amanda Berg   #24, 1B/C
Years Lettered: 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000
Hometown: Chippewa Falls, Wis.

My advice would be to just remember how lucky you are to get the opportunity to play the game of softball and how much fun the game truly is ... plus if they still have it, it feels incredible to hit the ball over that black fence :)

Lindy Barth DesJarlais   #10, OF/1B 
Years Lettered: 1998-2001
Hometown: Brighton, Mich.

My advice would be to simply have fun and enjoy every moment. Worrying about winning or losing or stats or hits or errors or playing time is not why you fell in love with this sport. Play to enjoy and play like you are a kid again. Once you are old and out of the game you will remember and appreciate the memories of good times with wonderful teammates and coaches, specific wins and losses will not define your time at Wisconsin. 

Waiting for spring

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snow.jpg
By Kelsey Kleist, Class of 2016

Unless your outfielders are good in snowshoes and your pitchers can throw in mittens, this isn't how many Midwest teams would like to start their spring season. With snow still blanketing the field, the Wisconsin softball team was forced to cancel their home opener vs. Northwestern and move the games to a later date.

Although Wisconsin is 28 games into the season, and yet to play at home, its record marks only three losses. Similar to other Midwest teams, the Badgers have become frequent flyers, traveling to North Carolina, Florida, California, Illinois and Kentucky to get away from the snow and onto the dirt.

Whether spring was ready or not, last weekend was the start to Big Ten competition. Wisconsin headed to Illinois where it swept the Illini and extended its win streak to 13-straight. UW hopes to continue the streak when the team heads to Iowa City this Friday.

Looking for your chance to witness the buzz about Wisconsin softball?
Come out to Goodman Diamond on April 10th to cheer on the Badgers as they take on Northern Iowa --and the weather -- for their first home victory.

Playing the Midwest's best

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In today's Badger Blog, head coach Yvette Healy reflects on UW's trip to California and looks ahead to the upcoming Midwest competition. 

After back-to-back, six game weekends in Orlando, Fla. and Fullerton, Calif., it was great to get back to Madison late Sunday night. The week has been quite an adventure, with a nine inch snow storm Monday night, burying the city. 

Our trip to California was a success, posting wins over No. 16 Stanford, Cal State Fullerton, Cal Poly and Cal State Bakersfield. Every team we played in California was impressive. Stanford already has 17 wins, with victories over Georgia, Florida State and Virginia. Fullerton has key wins over Missouri and UCLA, and Cal Poly has beaten Washington and Georgia.  We were really pleased with the composure and confidence that our pitchers and hitters displayed en route to those signature victories.

We switch gears the next two weekends to match up with some of the best regional competition around. We leave tomorrow for four games in Carbondale, Ill., at Southern Illinois University. We're excited to match up against SIU, UIC, Belmont and Eastern Kentucky. Growing up and playing in the Midwest, I've had the opportunity to watch SIU and UIC, have a tremendous amount of success nationally. Both teams have great softball legacies, and winning traditions.

Southern Illinois will certainly be a tough game on Saturday. It's always exciting to play the host team on their field. The Saluki's have wins this year against No. 14 South Florida and a tough Hofstra team with all-American pitching. SIU has six NCAA tournament appearances, including a sweet 16 finish.

On Sunday we'll face UIC who has 4-8 all-time record against Wisconsin. The Flames have nine NCAA tournament appearances, 12 NCAA tournament wins, and a World Series appearance.

Our goal, as a program, is to win the Big Ten, advance to the NCAA tournament and make a run in post-season play. In order to become a nationally-recognized, nationally-ranked program, it's critical that we match up and compete against the best teams in our region. Both SIU and UIC have a tremendous amount of NCAA tournament, championship experience. They both have hosted NCAA regional tournaments. This weekend will be a great test for Wisconsin, to see how we stack up against great Midwest opponents. 
 

California bound

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In today's Badger Blog, head coach Yvette Healy talks about the start of the season and the trip to California. 

The snow is falling in Madison as we prepare to head west for spring trip number three, this weekend in Fullerton, Calif. It's been a great start to the season, going 10-1 our first two weekends out. Eight of our last nine games have been against teams that played in the 2012 NCAA tournament, which makes the early wins even more meaningful. We stress the importance of taking it one game at a time, but it's hard to deny that most of our team has been looking forward to this particular weekend in California and these high profile teams. 

We'll open up against the host team, Cal State Fullerton on Thursday. They have a lot of excitement surrounding their program right now, with a few ranked wins, a beautiful stadium and a new head coach. Fullerton just beat No. 6 Missouri and No. 10 UCLA this week, which makes them one of the hot teams in softball right now, especially at home. We'll also battle Pac 12 rivals, No. 8 Cal, and No. 16 Stanford. 

With a short turn-around from last weekend, this trip will certainly be a test of toughness. When you face great California teams in California, you're the double underdog.  Our staff is excited to see how we match up with the best teams in the country right now. The spring schedule is created to help identify your weaknesses, and provide feedback for where you need to improve. Our goal this weekend is to get smarter, savvier and little bit better with each challenging game we face. If we can stay focused, fired up and scrappy this weekend, we just might surprise a few people.

ON WISCONSIN