April 28, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin softball coach Yvette Healy had four good reasons for upgrading the schedule. In no particular order, they were Michelle Mueller, Mary Massei, Stephanie Peace and Cassandra Darrah.
“We scheduled tougher and there have been a lot of ups and downs,” Healy said. “If you didn’t have four great seniors, you wouldn’t want to do it. But I think it prepares you for more.
“I wanted them to see what the best teams look like in February and March, especially now that we’re going into this stretch of games against Nebraska and Michigan.
“If you hadn’t faced all of those teams at the beginning of the year, you wouldn’t be able to stand on the same field with these teams. They’re legitimately that good.
“But we’ve seen some of the best in the country,” Healy reemphasized, “I don’t think anyone is going to be scared going into this stretch.”
The Badgers, who are riding a school-record 13-game winning streak, are scheduled to face Nebraska in a Wednesday doubleheader at Goodman Diamond.
That will be followed by a three-game weekend series at Michigan to close out the regular season in advance of the Big Ten tournament at Northwestern on May 8-11.
“When it comes down to being on the bubble or not,” said Mueller, “it just makes sense to put the hardest (non-conference) schedule possible together.”
In February, Wisconsin opened the season in Tampa against Florida, then the No. 3/No. 4-ranked team in the country and later played Texas A&M (No. 18/No.13) on its home turf in College Station.
It was only a preview of things to come.
Over a three-game stretch in early March at the Judi Garman Classic (Fullerton, Calif.), the Badgers played three heavyweights; three top-10 opponents: Arizona, Washington and Arizona State.
Mueller felt like the coaching staff had the ideal blueprint for the Badgers at that stage of the season “knowing that we play Michigan and Nebraska” on the back end of the schedule.
“It’s putting us in the best place possible,” she said. “They’ve had a game plan from the start.”
• • • •
Mueller has been on an impressive run-producing streak, tying the single-season school record with 49 RBIs through 45 games. She’s batting .373 with 11 home runs and a .714 slugging percentage. But how will it all play with her three older brothers? They’re not easily impressed.
Dale Mueller, 31, still holds the Butler University record for career batting average (.359). As a senior, he was selected by a vote of the coaches as the 2005 Horizon League Player of the Year. Mueller, an outfielder, was the first player in Butler history to be named first-team all-conference three times.
Jon Mueller, 29, was drafted out of the University of Minnesota by the Chicago Cubs in the 16th round of the 2005 MLB Amateur Draft. Mueller, a hard-throwing pitcher, started his college career at Butler. He spent four years in the minors with the Cubs and advanced as high as Triple AAA Iowa.
|“We want to be one of the reasons why this program takes off,” Mueller said. “When we come back 20 years from now ... we want to be able to say, ‘We were part of the process.’”
Tony Mueller, 24, helped lead Winona State to a runner-up finish in the 2011 NCAA Division II World Series. That summer, he was taken in the 13th round of the MLB draft by the Atlanta Braves. Mueller, an outfielder, played parts of three seasons in the Braves farm system.
After his release, he returned to Winona State to complete his degree. He also took advantage of an NCAA loophole that allowed him to retain two seasons of college eligibility in anything outside of baseball. Last fall, he went out for football at Winona State and tied for the team lead with 32 catches.
Dale, Jon and Tony Mueller won letters in multiple sports at Logan High School in La Crosse and each went on to play summer baseball for the Loggers, the local team in the Northwoods League. Boys being boys, it was only natural for the Mueller boys to boast about their prowess to their little sister.
“We would turn on ESPN and watch the Top 10 plays,” Michelle Mueller remembered, “and they would be like, ‘I’ll be there one day, just watch.”’ She giggled. “Oh, really. I was on it first.”
The Mueller boys couldn’t have been prouder of their sister, either, after watching her claim the No. 8 slot on SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays with an aggressive over-the-railing catch of a foul pop against Penn State on Easter Sunday. “I had no idea I was that close to the fence,” Mueller admitted.
Nobody appreciated the fearless, gung-ho attitude more than Healy.
“She’s a banged up kid,” Healy said. “She’s hurting, she’s limping, she’s got that knee brace and she’s just muscling through a lot of pain -- and she goes head on into the wall. You could see her bang her leg right into it. That kid’s got more heart than most players that you’re going to see in any sport.”
Mueller’s energy is contagious, too.
“She plays really hard, she’s competitive and the team rallies behind her -- they just love her,” Healy said. “Every time she does something great, you see people jumping out and banging her on the helmet. They couldn’t be more excited for someone.”
Healy sees Mueller as an Unsung Hero even with her growing profile on the national stage, which Healy hasn’t taken for granted. “I don’t think there’s a better way to start your day,” she said, “than the kids doing an egg hunt and having coffee and seeing Michelle Mueller on ESPN.”
• • • •
There are times when Michelle Mueller feels like she’s seeing too much of Michelle Mueller. Like the first time she walked into the new indoor training center adjacent to Goodman Diamond, looked up on the wall and saw a giant, overwhelming Mueller cutout as part of a mural of players.
“It’s like, ‘Boom, in your face,”’ Mueller said uneasily. “I was like, ‘Oh, gosh.’ It’s such an intense picture that everybody loves of me. But why does it have to be that big?”
The Goodman training center is definitely big time with its regulation-size infield diamond, batting cages, conference rooms, refurbished locker room and players lounge.
“It has a little bit of everything,” Mueller said. “Being able to get real groundballs here before going to Florida and California really made a difference for us defensively.”
She also pointed out that the indoor facility represented “a turning point” for the program.
“It’s something that is going to truly put us on the map with the Top 25 (programs),” she said. “It’s great for recruiting purposes and it’s going to take Wisconsin softball to a whole other level.”
The four seniors have talked about that “level” in terms of their own legacy.
“We want to be one of the reasons why this program takes off,” Mueller said. “When we come back 20 years from now and sit in the stands, we want to be able to say, ‘We were part of the process to get us into the Top 10.'"
Thus far, the biggest step in the process has been winning last season’s Big Ten tournament championship. One of the interior walls of the training center -- opposite the leather couch and chairs in the lounge -- features a blow-up picture of the team celebrating that title.
Does Mueller catch herself looking up there when she’s in the facility?
“All the time,” she said, adding that it’s a reminder of “how much hard work has truly gone into” turning around the program. She credited the coaches for “making this a different atmosphere” and putting “so much heart” into developing the players.
“They make it about you,” she said.
Nobody is better at doing that than Healy. “She’s so fiery,” Mueller said. “She just has so much energy and so much love for the game -- so much love for all of us as individuals. She’s just someone that you always want to be around. She’s contagious.”
At least her spirit is. So is success -- the type of success that the Badgers enjoyed late last season.
“If anything,” Mueller said, “it can give us the confidence that we know we can compete regardless (of the opponent). We’re a team that made an impression last year. But it was an impression some people will consider and some people will just forget about.”
Focused on controlling only what can be controlled, Mueller stressed, “It’s a feeling that we have to hold on to. We have to understand, if we did it last year, we can do it this year.”
That has shown through the 13-game winning streak. The Badgers were 17-15 overall and 3-5 in the Big Ten when they got on this roll. Their last loss was on April 6 at Minnesota.
Healy cited four good reasons for the dramatic turnaround.
Mueller, Massei, Peace and Darrah.
“When we met with the seniors, we said, ‘It’s really all about you guys’ and we just challenged them,” Healy said. “They’re a group that cares but they wanted to fix it all and they wanted to solve every problem and we said, ‘Stop focusing so much on what’s not working and talk about what it is.’”
Their play has been speaking volumes.