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The biggest question

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In this week's blog, head coach Yvette Healy talks about the final week of the regular season and what the biggest question is for the Badgers this week.

It's exciting to enter into the final weekend of regular season play for the Wisconsin softball team. We hit the road for Nebraska on Thursday. We're currently 33-17, with a 12-8 Big Ten record, which ties us for 4th place with Nebraska. This is a huge weekend for the Badger softball program. We're a top-50 program right now, on the bubble for making our first NCAA tournament appearance since 2005.

Nebraska has always been a great softball program. The Cornhuskers have made 21 NCAA tournament appearances and seven trips to the Women's College World series. With their 13-0 record at home, we know we'll have our work cut out for us on this trip. The exciting thing is, it's May and we still have a shot at the post-season. Being a life-long Chicago Cubs fan, there haven't been many October's when we're still cheering for the Cubs. It's fun to have so much to play for during our last regular season weekend.

What a great season we've had in 2012. We've broken a lot of offensive records, and put together a few record-breaking win streaks at home and throughout the season. Our challenge is to take the program to the next level, and create a national presence. The biggest question for the Badgers softball team is when.  When do we turn that corner? When do we start putting up big wins over legacy programs? When can we get the big wins, against the best teams, when it counts the most?

Everything is coming right down to the wire, with two games Friday night and our last regular season game on Saturday. How we do this weekend will have a big impact, as we wait for the NCAA tournament selection show Sunday night at 9 p.m.

What a great opportunity for this young team to experience in May!

Massey_Whitney_WIU041012_WEB.jpgThere have been mornings when UW softball coach Yvette Healy has arrived to work at Camp Randall Stadium only to find some of her players working out in the weight room or running stairs.

To see them working overtime on their own -- to see them doing all the little things that are important to stability and success -- is a sign to Healy that her second-year program is arriving.

"It's great to see softball starting to take a lead from what women's hockey has done and some of the other great programs here have done as far as putting in all that extra work,'' Healy said.

"Some players thought they were working hard and didn't really know what it feels like to work hard at a BCS-level program, so they've kicked it into gear.

"It's a culture thing. You don't want it to be just one or two kids who are taking it seriously and are emotionally invested. You want it to be everybody -- but we're getting there.

"We still have some who are in the phase where the light bulb is turning on. We'll arrive as a program when our entire roster, from top to bottom, has that sense of urgency for 12 months.''

The Badgers have made positive strides in that direction on the diamond by playing themselves into contention for a Big Ten championship and an NCAA tournament bid.

"It's exciting in the month of May for this program to be in the hunt (for a league title),'' Healy said. "That we're in the conversation is already a huge step for the program.''

Especially when you consider the company that they're keeping; the Badgers are within striking distance of first-place Michigan in the Big Ten standings.

On being in such rarified air -- with the Wolverines here for a doubleheader Saturday and a single game Sunday -- Healy has instructed her players to "embrace it, enjoy it; we're the underdogs.''

Perspective is not lacking.

"We just talked to the players about how Michigan has everything to lose here,'' she noted.
Wisconsin has never beaten Michigan in Madison.

"They've got all the history, they've got all the Big Ten championships,'' Healy said of the No. 23-ranked Wolverines, the NCAA champion in 2005. "They're a Goliath in the softball world.

"We realize that we're going against the best at the toughest time of the year. Still, we're excited to play them at home in front of all our fans on a big stage when it counts.''

Healy is undaunted by the challenge of facing Michigan and Nebraska on back-to-back weekends, even though the Badgers must travel to Lincoln, where the Cornhuskers are 13-0 this season.

"As a staff, it's exactly what we want,'' she said. "A lot of people would like to face some of the teams that are struggling. But you want to face the best if you really want to build a program.''

The first stage in the building process took place last season and extended to the off-season.
"We had some tough meetings with some players at the end of last year,'' Healy said. "They needed to make huge strides in terms of getting stronger, working harder and putting more time in.''

Among those players, Healy said, was Whitney Massey.

"That kid has made more strides than anyone,'' she said proudly of Massey's improvement. "She's done a nice job hitting out of the three hole and bringing a solid, left-handed bat to the line-up.''

Another player who has "stepped up her game'' has been Michelle Mueller.

"For as strong as she is, she didn't have any power numbers last year,'' Healy said. "But you could tell she was in the batting cage all summer. She's got a baseball family and she's a cage rat.''

Not unlike a "gym rat.'' There have been others who have responded in like fashion.

"You watch them play,'' Healy said, "and you know that they have lived it (softball) all summer long and all winter long; they've been in the weight room and in the cages and it's starting to show.''

Healy didn't pull any punches in her end-of-the-year meetings with individuals.

"Young players sometimes think you're just there to say all the nice things and cheer for them,'' she said. "But we have to be some of the most honest people in their lives.

"We tell them, 'Here's what you're doing well, here's where you're not cutting it. This is the expectation.' They really took it well. We kept it positive. Reality hurts some time; the truth hurts.''

Healy resisted the "no pain, no gain'' cliché, but she made her point.

So has her team so far this season. But an exclamation point is still missing.

"Beating a Top-25 team is the next step that you have to take,'' Healy said.

No shortcuts for the Badgers

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In this week's blog, head coach Yvette Healy writes about how there are no shortcuts when building a championship program.

It's great to be back in Madison after a long weekend in West Lafayette, Ind. We traveled to Purdue and split on Saturday before dropping a heartbreaker yesterday. It was only the second Big Ten series we've lost all year.

It's amazing how much it hurts to lose games and drop series. There's a lot of emotional investment in the Badger softball program right now. Our biggest challenge is how we respond to these setbacks. Sports are amazing. They'll rip your heart out sometimes.

I think the losses along the way are just as important as the wins. We love to see what each kid does when she struggles. Does she try to go it alone? Does she back down and get quiet, getting inside her own head? Does she get sad when things don't go her way? Or, does she trust her training, work even harder, and battle back? We challenge our kids everyday not to be selfish. We challenge them to focus on the team, finding a way to contribute even when things are bad. It's such a life lesson, focusing out-word and upward when things are at their worst. Successful people reach out to their teammates and coaches, and find a way to overcome the tough times. They keep things in perspective, and work to overcome their obstacles.

It really has been such a great year so far. We're 30-15 right now, and the Big Ten race is wide open. Wisconsin is 12-6 in conference play, tied for fourth, but just one game out of first with Michigan sitting at 13-5.

Of course we hate that we lost, but we were so pleased with how we hit the ball at Purdue. We scored 14 runs in three games, with 28 hits; they scored 14 runs on 21 hits. It really came down to defense. They pressured us into seven errors this weekend, and had a few key hits when it counted. That's what good teams do though, they pressure and they force you to work very hard for every out. Despite a lot of fight and several great rally innings, we couldn't overcome some of the early and costly mistakes we made in the games we lost.

Here's the exciting part. We have the second best batting average and slugging percentage in conference play, hitting .323, with a .459 slugging percentage. Michigan leads both of those categories. They've also won the conference title the last three years. What an exciting time to face them at home this weekend.

It's funny when you look at the new Big Ten schedule. A lot of fans and teams are complaining about fairness, since each team won't face three other conference foes each season. We've never gotten caught up in that argument. We'll face the No. 1 and No. 2 teams these last two weekends, with six games left against Michigan and Nebraska.

I couldn't think of a better way to finish the season. If you really are a true competitor, you want the tougher road. You want to face the best teams, in the toughest situations, when it matters most.

The path of least resistance sounds appealing, but it's never gotten anyone far. When building a championship program, there are no shortcuts and there's no easy way out. You have to earn every ounce of respect you get, and you'll have to fight for every win and each accolade you collect along the way. Our staff knows that we're the underdogs entering these last few weekends, and that's right where we want to be. We have a scrappy group of hard-working, tenacious young ladies that have something left to prove. Sure the task at hand is big, and truly challenging, but isn't that why we all play and coach this game?


Success is not a destination, it's a journey

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In this week's blog, head coach Yvette Healy writes about the journey towards being a champion.

Success, like happiness, is not a destination. It's a journey, a path you choose, a way of life. I am so proud of our Badger softball family. We are on the path of improvement right now, and enjoying the journey as we work to build a championship program.

After being at Wisconsin for one and a half years, a lot of people ask what's so special about Madison and what makes the Badger athletic department great. It truly is a family atmosphere and a winning culture. For our Badger softball team, culture has been the number one thing that we've been working to build, nurture and sustain.

For our staff, creating a championship culture is about empowerment. When teams and student-athletes struggle on the field, in the classroom and in their lives, there's an overwhelming feeling that life, circumstances and situations are out of our control. Somehow things aren't fair, and they'll never change. This negativity breeds negativity, ultimately demotivating, and creating a culture of apathy. No one works hard, there are lots of excuses, and the cycle of failure propels itself.

Our softball team is 11-4 in conference right now, in second place behind Michigan. That ties us for the most Big Ten wins in the history of the program, with three tough weekends left to play. Our 27-13 record makes us a top 50 team, out of nearly 300 D1 softball programs in the country. With six athletes hitting over .300, there's a lot to be excited about. Yet what we're most proud of with this group is the culture of pride and accountability they're working to create.

One of the most gratifying things that any of us can do in a lifetime is to create something new and special. Many people have played in successful programs, and lived prosperous lives with great relationships. Yet what's truly special, is when a group of young women come together to change history. It takes an incredible amount of work, passion, resilience, and belief to create something that hasn't always been there. When student-athletes can overcome obstacles and adversity to succeed, and become the athletes and people they always dreamed of, that is life-changing. True empowerment for our young women is experiencing the invaluable life-lesson that anything is possible. If your situation is bad; in sports, in school, or in life, you have the ability to work to create a new reality. They can change their attitudes, approach, and work-ethic to build a better life.

What makes this journey even more special is the caliber of people, and quality of character in our program. After sweeping Penn State yesterday in front of a record crowd of 1,000 fans, our softball staff and student-athletes volunteered their time to coach and mentor 70 young softball players in a Kids Clinic at our stadium.  That type of service leadership in the community is heart-warming. Even after the clinic ended, our athletes stayed to sign autographs and eat pizza with the young softball players and their families.

Kid's Clinic Photo Gallery

We have a lot of season left as we enter the home stretch of 2012. Six of our nine remaining Big Ten games are on the road, and we'll play the top three teams these last three weekends as we travel to Purdue and Nebraska, and host nationally-ranked Michigan. We also have five huge non-conference games at home during the next few weeks. It's fun to be on the path and in the hunt. We have a lot of work to do as a team, to become a championship program. Yet, right now, our staff has a tremendous amount of pride as we look at how hard this group is working together to improve every day


Another big weekend for the Badgers

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In today's blog, Wisconsin head coach Yvette Healy writes about the Badgers' big weekend at Illinois and the importance of beating Penn State this weekend.

What a great weekend for the Badger softball family! We went down to Illinois and won the series, beating the Illini, 8-0, on Saturday night, on the Big Ten Network. That was our 9th win in a row, which set the new Wisconsin softball record for most wins in a row. Our win on Sunday raised our record to 24-13, helping us climb into a tie for third in the Big Ten, and ranking us 53rd in the RPI, out of nearly 300 D1 teams!

Sunday's games were crazy, as we battled 20 mph winds all day. Sophomore Mary Massei brought everyone to their feet as she belted an amazing three home runs in the same game! Our team had a total of six home runs in that game with sophomore Stephanie Peace, junior Shannel Blackshear and sophomore Michelle Mueller all going yard.

We have a huge home weekend ahead as we prepare for three games against Penn State. The Nittany Lions made the NCAA tournament last year, and have big ranked wins over No. 19 Auburn and No. 22 LSU earlier this year. Their catcher, Kasie Hatfield, was just named Big Ten Player of the Week helping Penn State to win five of its last six conference games. In our all-time records, PSU has won 25-of-32 games against the Badgers, including a two-game sweep last season. Our team is hungry to prove how far we've come as a program, and how much we've improved.

Our staff is really enjoying the passion and pride our team is bringing to the field each day. It's fun to see our athletes work hard, grow, improve, and achieve small goals throughout the season. This weekend will be a huge test for our young squad to see just how close we are to becoming an NCAA tournament team. We're excited to see who steps up and takes charge as we play in front of our friends and families this weekend in Madison!



What a week!

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In today's blog, head coach Yvette Healy writes about the great week the Badgers had.

What a great week for Badger softball. After going 6-0 over spring break, including a weekend sweep of Minnesota , Wisconsin is 20-12 overall, and 6-3 in the Big Ten. We're in fourth place in conference, with Michigan, Nebraska and Purdue ahead of us. Sophomore pitcher Cassandra Darrah earned Big Ten Co-Pitcher of the Week honors, while sophomore shortstop Stephanie Peace was named Big Ten Player of the Week. 

Complete release on UWBadgers.com

We are so proud of the tenacity and fight our team is showing right now. We've won eight of our last 10 games, and we have a big week ahead. We'll face Western Illinois for a doubleheader at home on Tuesday. Western Illinois is in first place in the Summit League, posting a big win this season against Kentucky, who knocked off Michigan last year in the NCAA tournament to earn a Sweet 16, Super-Regional bid. We'll travel to Champaign, Ill., this weekend for a huge three-game series against Illinois. Saturday's doubleheader will be broadcast live on the Big Ten network, starting at 4 p.m. The series finale is Sunday, April 15, at 1 p.m. 

Play the best to be the best

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In today's blog entry, head coach Yvette Healy writes about the Badgers' tough weekend against Northwestern.

It's always hard to lose any weekend series. If you're like me, you replayed the games over a thousand times in your head, after watching the actual game and highlights on film. You probably thought of 100 things we could have done better to squeak out just one more win, especially in the extra inning game when we had the bases loaded with one out and just need one more run to end the game. Our job as your staff is to keep things in perspective, to continue to improve every game, and to teach every player how to reach and exceed her potential.

So far in Big Ten play we've faced two very good teams that have legacy programs and we're 3-3. We scored 22 runs this weekend and Northwestern scored 21 against us. Last weekend we scored eight runs and Iowa scored eight. Iowa has been to the World Series four times, and Northwestern has been there five times, add that to 30+ NCAA tournament appearances those schools have combined, and you know you're facing great programs with histories of winning success. We are building that history and legacy here at Wisconsin, and I am so proud to work with these coaches and this group of student-athletes on our current team to get there together.

The great part about playing programs like Northwestern with multiple All-American hitters is that we all get to see and experience what the best looks like. I know our lead-off hitters and power hitters aspire to be the best in country, and what better way to become the best, than to play the best.

As for our pitchers, our coaching staff understands that we're young and we are dedicated to improvement. We knew that Northwestern averages five + runs a game, even playing one of the toughest schedules. We knew we would be in for grinding out some high scoring games, but it always feels different when you're actually experiencing it.

We will continue to put a tremendous amount of time against researching our opponents to prepare a great game plan. We will keep communicating the keys to beating other programs. Our workouts will be built around executing our pitches and executing the game plan. We can be successful this year if we keep getting better every outing.

Obviously we wanted to do a better job of keeping the ball in the park this weekend, giving up three home runs that accounted for 10 of Northwestern' s 22 runs. The interesting thing about that stat is that we could actually handle giving up the three runs if those were all solo shots. It's when we walk and hit batters at the bottom of the lineup that kills us. Then we have to face the best All-American hitters with multiple runners on. That adds more pressure, and if the bases are loaded, we can't pitch around those big bats. I think Northwestern' s number eight hitter was its MVP this weekend. In our two losses, she was on base 7-of-8 times, with four hits, two walks, one hit-by-pitch, a stolen base and five runs scored.

Let's get excited about spring break. It's coming at the perfect time. Let's pull together and get a little winning momentum. We are all looking forward to a break from Big Ten play, and classes, and the opportunity to play great on the road.

 

 


A great start

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In today's blog entry, head coach Yvette Healy writes about the Badgers' good start at Iowa.

What a great start to Big Ten play. The Wisconsin softball team is thrilled to open the season taking 2-of-3 at Iowa. Iowa is such a legacy program with four trips to the World Series and 16 NCAA appearances. We knew we would have our hands full facing them on the road for our first Big Ten games of 2012.

Entering last season, Iowa was 28-7 all-time against the Badgers. We're fortunate to have swept them last year, posting a 4-1 record against the Hawkeyes these last two seasons. Iowa native, sophomore Cassandra Darrah pitched all three games for us, holding Iowa to just two hits in the first game of the series.

After 23 games on the road, we're thrilled to host our home-opener this weekend against Northwestern. We have a doubleheader on Saturday at noon and 2, and our game on Sunday will be broadcast live on the Big Ten Network at 2 p.m. Northwestern also has a rich winning tradition, with three Sweet 16 finishes and a second-place World Series appearance in 2007.

There are some great highlights from our games at Iowa on the Big Ten Network's homepage too. You can find them on UWBadgers.com. BTN is rebroadcasting one of our 2012 Iowa games today, March 28, at 3 p.m. CT on the Big Ten Network's cable channel.

Video Highlights: Wisconsin at Iowa

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The need for leadership

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In today's blog entry, head coach Yvette Healy writes about the need for leadership and building a legacy at Wisconsin

Watching the team play yesterday, and how bad we were, it's easy to see how Wisconsin softball struggled in the past. We played like the 177 RPI team we were in 2010. What we've achieved in the last 1.5 years -- winning 30 games last season, sitting 11-8 right now after facing several ranked teams, is special. Culture is not easily changed, and losing ways and bad old habits die hard. Like any progress, it's not a straight, linear path. Sometimes it's two steps forward and one step back. You have to appreciate the climb, and celebrate the small victories and minor improvements.

 As a team and coaching staff, you can't panic when things fall apart, but rather focus on solutions and improvements. It's easy to get angry and point fingers when we fail. Yet the best programs and coaches stay constructive with their criticism and approach, focusing on teachable moments and opportunities for growth rather than sulking and dwelling on what's broke. Things can get ugly and go downhill fast when adversity strikes.

The main thing I feel like we're missing right now is leadership. It's not just about one or two great players that we need to lead, but a culture of leadership that needs to be created. We need people to model what leadership is all about and to teach our athletes how to be great captains.

With all the amazing athletic success at Wisconsin in football, basketball and hockey, our athletes need to reach out to other top programs and ask the captains to share how they lead. It's interesting after being around teams in the past and coaching and playing, there's a toughness and savvy that we need. We need a few people who refuse to let the team or individuals be bad. For now, it's just our staff saying the tough things and holding people accountable.

What great teams have...

Great teams have a group of hard working athletes who love the game of softball, who are passionate about being extraordinary at what they do. Amazing teams are comprised of fearless individuals who know their strengths as an athlete and joyfully pursue improving their weaknesses, step by step.

Championship programs have a group who hold themselves to a higher standard, working to be great in all parts of their lives; academically, offensively, defensively and socially. There is accountability within great programs, where people aren't afraid to talk about what's missing and what needs to be done.

Most importantly, great programs achieve. The leaders will work, fight and prepare to guarantee effort and results. Leaders refuse to let their team walk in flat or scared. On their way to success, great teams grow by being fearless. They aren't afraid to fail. When they do stumble, they work through the difficulties, they embrace the journey, and all the while they fully believe in their talent, teammates, and inherent ability to succeed.

Mental toughness and confidence are the keys to achievement. Great teams and athletes have a sense of urgency. They passionately work to improve, grow, and minimize their deficiencies while remaining focused, cheerful and confident.

What would it take to truly believe that everything is going to work out, that things are meant to be good and you deserve to succeed? I don't know why some athletes truly believe that they are great, that their team is great and failures and setbacks are just bumps in the road along the path of achievement.

What's really important in this whole collegiate experience? What matters most as a take away from college athletics? Is it wins and losses and ERA and batting average? Or confidence, success and a deep belief that anything can be worked towards, built and attained?

When our athletes walk out the door in four years with an amazing degree from a nationally-ranked school, the most important asset they can take with them is an unshakable belief in themselves.

Athletics forges a sense of purpose and control over our lives. It is a microcosm of the world, where we all get to see and experience how hard-work, passion and dedication lead to success. Great things can be built from scratch.

Legacies and programs grow from the ground up, becoming something extraordinary and lasting, when a few passionate people dedicate themselves to improving as individuals and as a team. It is that group achievement that you'll never forget. Growing, leading, and lifting up those around you is life changing, its life affirming.

All great leaders care more about the relationships and group success over personal glory. There's an amazing satisfaction and pride that comes from making everyone around you better as you collectively achieve.

That lesson in leadership must come alive at Wisconsin. Legacies aren't easily built. They are hard-fought victories with a prize truly worth the years of dedication they take to grow.

ON WISCONSIN