May 2, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Years from now when the seniors reminisce about their careers, it will be hard not to reflect on how they each committed to a Wisconsin softball program that had gone 15-40 in back-to-back seasons.
"I wanted to come here,'' said Shannel Blackshear, an infielder from Arizona, "because I wanted the chance to be part of maybe changing the program around and starting something new.''
Whitney Massey, an outfielder-infielder from California, confirmed that the sales pitch revolved around being the recruiting class to make the biggest difference in a major rebuilding project.
"The coaches used that as a tool to recruit all of us,'' said Massey, agreeing that a turnaround "was definitely something that we had in our sights when we came here.''
During their freshman season, the Badgers showed only modest improvement, which led to the dismissal of head coach Chandelle Schulte, whose five-year record was 99-153, 23-70 in the Big Ten.
"When we found out that our coach was not returning,'' said Massey, who's from Salinas, Calif., "I kind of freaked out being so far from home. It was like, `What am I going to do?'''
Blackshear, who's from Sierra Vista, Ariz., had some of the same long distance concerns.
"But I was more focused on what was going to be different and what the coaches were going to be like coming in,'' Blackshear said. "I was hoping things were going to change for the better.''
Blackshear got her wish with the hiring of Yvette Healy in 2010. Massey admitted that she initially feared a make-over whereby returning players would be in jeopardy of holding roster spots.
But it was not the Healy plan. Instead, Massey noted the new coaching staff - including Randy Schneider and Tracie Adix - was "a breath of fresh air'' and brought "new energy'' to the Badgers.
"They just brought in a new attitude,'' Massey went on, "and it was their aim to change the culture. They heard a lot of things about our softball program before and they weren't having it.''
It didn't take long for the UW players to warm to Healy and her assistants.
"After the first few weeks,'' Blackshear recounted, "after meeting the coaches and just seeing how they ran practices and how they were with all of the girls, you could just feel the difference.
"She (Healy) made it a more passionate program and made everyone care more. She made us understand that we have the ability to be good if we put the time and effort towards that.''
Others had the same recollection of Healy's early impact.
Kendall Grimm, a senior outfielder from Overland Park, Kan., sensed that Healy "was really interested in us'' and had plans for taking "steps that were easy to accomplish and do as a team.''
Meghan McIntosh, a senior pitcher from Sierra Vista, Ariz., credited Healy for "instilling a positive attitude on how we were going to work hard every day and turn the program around.''
When the Badgers close out their regular season this weekend at Goodman Diamond, the seniors can take pride in how far they have traveled and the legacy that they are leaving behind.
"They were a group that could have gone in one direction or another,'' Healy said. "They have some nice talent but they weren't necessarily superstars.
"But they bought in; they wanted to be better and they wanted to be a part of it and I'm so happy that they chose to stick with us and chose to stay the course.
"The juniors and seniors have been leading the way and those are two groups where the kids could have jumped ship and transferred, or we could have cut them.
"Those are all of these things that could have happened to make a quick fix,'' conceded Healy, pointing out, "When you take over a program, a lot of people gut the program and clean house.''
But that was not the approach that she took that first season.
"We did have to get them to having more fun,'' Healy said.
It was one element in changing the culture.
"It was just a confidence-type thing,'' Massey said. "We weren't really focusing on the wins and losses (early on). It was just how well we had played through each game.
"If we progressed, we became more and more excited about it. And once we saw the change in ourselves, we all bought in and we were able to change it (the culture) that way.
"I think self-esteem is huge. I know Coach Healy talks about that a lot. If someone feels good about themselves and they're in a good place in their life, they play well.
"When we had strong self-esteem as a program, we started winning. I was just nervous that we weren't going to get here by my senior year. I knew the coaches were going to do it eventually.''
Asked how she would define self-esteem, Healy replied, "It's how you view yourself - being able to feel good about yourself even when others around you might be doubting and questioning (things).''
Blackshear suggested it was more about creating a "different environment'' in concert with the players taking ownership and "understanding it was ultimately up to us to put time and effort into it.''
In this context, McIntosh cited the momentum generated from getting "a big boost of confidence with a new coaching staff'' resulting in "everyone believing more in Wisconsin softball.''
All of this entailed subscribing to what the coaches were telling them about working overtime on their habits, on and off the diamond, which Grimm said, "We weren't really doing before.''
In 2011, the Badgers went 30-23; 9-11 in the Big Ten. That was a 10-win improvement from the year before, BH (Before Healy). Last season, they were 34-19 and had a winning league record (13-10).
"Sometimes,'' Healy said, "self-esteem is about having a good time and enjoying the process and learning curve and that was probably the biggest part of it.''
Sometimes, it's also about accenting the positive throughout the transition and reinforcing the players by reminding them "if you're getting better, you're accomplishing something,'' Healy said.
During her first season, she enlisted the help of other UW coaches to deliver the message. That included former football coach Bret Bielema and women's soccer coach Paula Wilkins.
"When Paula came in and talked about getting to the Sweet 16 in three years, I think that left a mark,'' Healy said. "Hearing how they went from the bottom of the pack made it seem more realistic.''
It took only three years for Wilkins to turn the program around. In that third season, Wilkins guided Wisconsin into the third round of the NCAA tournament, the school's best finish in 15 years.
Healy has UW softball on a similar timeline. This is her third season and the Badgers are 38-9 overall and hold down second place in the Big Ten with a 15-5 record. The wins are school records.
Making the 2013 NCAA field would be a cornerstone of the seniors' legacy.
"We all dreamed that we could make big strides and an impact on this team - that's why we all came here,'' Grimm said. "We're proud to get this far and still maybe accomplish more.''
Along the way, there have been benefits to even the growing pains.
"It's part of what makes it great, all of the ups and downs,'' said Blackshear. "It has helped me grow as a person and player. I know the experiences I've had will take me beyond the softball field.''
The recognition they receive on campus today is a reminder and byproduct of how far they've come from winning five Big Ten games as freshmen to winning 15 (and counting) as seniors.
"That's one of the best feelings,'' Massey said. "People from sports that I hardly ever talk to are coming up and saying, `Oh, you guys are 38-9 right now' or `I saw you guys are ranked, congratulations.'
"My freshman year we didn't have any recognition. People would say, `Oh, you're on the softball team' like there was some stigma. Now it's, `Wow, you guys have turned the program around.'''
The turnaround, in part, is reflected by the on-going construction of a 16,500 square foot indoor softball training facility (regulation infield, batting cages, etc.) adjacent to Goodman Diamond.
"We were just talking about it the other day and I was saying how jealous I am because I wasn't going to get to use it,'' Blackshear said. "At the same time, I'm really happy that they're getting something like that out here. It's amazing and it shows all the support for the softball team.''
Nobody appreciates that backing more than Healy.
"Everyone feels the love,'' she said. "When you see the groundbreaking before we've even gotten into the NCAA tournament and you see the kind of capital investment in a program that really hasn't made huge waves nationally, it shows the support and foresight from the administration.''
To this end, Healy singled out the commitment of athletic director Barry Alvarez.
"We invited coach (Alvarez) to come out and talk before our Ohio State series,'' she said. "That was a busy weekend for him with the spring football game. I know he had a million things to do, but he found the time and talked to the team about playing against rival schools.''
His interest meant everything to the players, Healy said, as far as letting them know "we're not just some program down by the lake, a mile off campus, but we're actually a part of this really successful athletic department and that's all that anyone wants to be - a part of the excitement at Wisconsin.''
The Badgers are now creating some of their own in softball.