May 21, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- On the flight home Sunday from Eugene, Ore., the site of the NCAA regional, Wisconsin's third-year softball coach Yvette Healy made the most of her time by conducting exit interviews with some of the players. Before returning her seat back and tray table to the upright position, she had begun to "turn the page'' on a record-setting 44-win season and "started looking ahead'' to next season.
Actually, this process began after the Badgers suffered their second loss in the double-elimination tournament; a 3-0 defeat Saturday to Oregon, the Pac-12 champions. Not that the No. 3 seeded Ducks needed help, but it didn't hurt to be playing on their home turf, Howe Field, where they are now 16-0 this season. Oregon will also host the Super Regional against Nebraska this weekend.
Part of Healy's post-game message to her team was in the form of a question.
"How do we get better?'' she asked. "We were saying how important it is to refocus and take the next step. Let's be a Top-16 team in the future so that we can be hosting these (regional) games. We were trying to get them to be hungry ... We got a taste of it. But we graduate a lot of older kids, so there are opportunities for a lot of young ones. There are big shoes to fill and a lot of work to be done.''
Wisconsin earned an automatic bid into the NCAA field by winning the Big Ten tournament in Lincoln, Neb. The upstart Badgers defeated regular season champion Michigan in the semifinals and Minnesota in the May 12 title game. On their bus trip home, they made a pit stop outside of Iowa City and watched the NCAA selection show at a Buffalo Wild Wings. The top 16 seeds hosted regionals.
Prior to leaving for Oregon, Healy fielded questions on whether she felt the UW had done enough to receive a home seeds whereby the Goodman Diamond would have been one of the regional sites. "We were hoping we'd be considered,'' she said then. "Coming off the weekend (in Lincoln) we did everything we could to put ourselves in a great position for consideration.''
There was a light moment during the selection show when some highlight footage of Wisconsin was aired by mistake while announcing Nebraska's seed. "They were a little confused but who wouldn't want to be confused for Nebraska?'' Healy posed rhetorically. "We've got a ways to go from a respect standpoint to get that hosting opportunity. But, hopefully, this will help lay the groundwork for it.''
After the Oregon regional, Healy noted, "The Big Ten prepared us well. Michigan and Nebraska are every bit as good as what we saw from Oregon. They're all really impressive squads from top to bottom. But it comes down to that it's still tougher to play on the road against somebody. That really factors into it. Basketball has neutral sites when you get into the NCAAs and you see more upsets.''
In this context, Healy revisited a talking point from the year before when the Badgers fell short of making the NCAA tournament despite compiling a 34-19 record. "Even though we didn't make it, we wanted to be in the conversation and we were - people were talking about us,'' she said, adding that might be the case again for future seeding considerations. "You have to get talked about first.''
Looking back on how Wisconsin performed on the postseason stage in splitting four games, Healy felt like it was a "microcosm of the whole season'' based on some of the challenges, including the travel (2,106 miles), the weather (rain delays) and the NCAA experience of the other teams in the regional. "We played like we had experience,'' she said, "and we were the only team without it.''
Wisconsin's first game in the tournament was interrupted by rain in the top of the fourth inning with the Badgers leading, 1-0, over North Carolina. After a one hour delay, the Tar Heels tied the game and wound up winning, 3-2, in eight innings. "It definitely didn't help us,'' Healy said of the stoppage in play. "But I don't think anyone responded poorly (as a result of it). They're just a tough team.''
Besides, the Badgers had them right where they wanted them.
"This is where having some NCAA tournament experience as a coach and a player really helped,'' said Healy. "I've been on teams and coached teams that made their run in the tournament right after that first game loss. I've seen it before and we told our players that if you win that first day, you're not necessarily in the easiest position.''
After beating the UW on Thursday, the Heels turned around and lost to Oregon on Friday.
"So they came off that loss and had to play us that night (Friday) while we were coming off of a win that morning against BYU,'' Healy said. "On elimination day, people's nerves are frayed and it's really hard to bounce back after a loss. We were lucky in that we had a night (Thursday) to get over it and take a deep breath. We were then able to ride the momentum from BYU (against North Carolina).
"We actually talked about it going into the tournament. I said to the staff, `Let's not stress about that first game regardless of what happens.' A lot of teams come off that game and advance to the championship game just by being tougher. After we lost (to the Heels), we had to do what we do best.''
The Badgers, in her own words, had to keep fighting, keep grinding - a staple of a Healy-coached team - and that's what they did in the rematch against North Carolina. Mary Massei and Whitney Massey got two hits each, Marissa Mersch drove in two runs and Meghan McIntosh allowed just five hits in the UW's 6-2 victory that eliminated the Tar Heels and put Wisconsin in the finals with Oregon.
"All weekend long, I wasn't too emotional about anything,'' Healy confided. "But in the seventh inning of that game when Meghan was closing in on the win, I felt myself getting a little nostalgic for her. I had to actually refocus for a moment. She's such a great kid and she has worked so hard. Her mom had driven 20 hours from Arizona (Sierra Vista) to be there for her and I was really happy for Meghan.''
In a tightly contested matchup, Oregon outlasted Wisconsin, 3-0, even though the Ducks were outhit, 4-3. Their biggest hit was Janelle Lindvall's two-run homer in the seventh inning that broke open the game. It was Lindvall's 12th home run of the season. Oregon took an early 1-0 lead in the second when Samantha Pappas homered off Cassandra Darrah who struck out five and walked three.
"I thought their pitcher (Darrah) did a great job,'' said Oregon coach Mike White.
Healy also praised Darrah for elevating her game to the opponent. "To go on their field against the Pac-12 champions and throw that great of a game was awesome,'' she said. "Of all the teams in the Pac-12 we could have seen or drawn, we saw the champions. I think overall we put together a good enough game that we might have beaten 10 out of the other 12 teams in that conference.''
The first part of Healy's post-game message to her team was directed at the seniors. "We have so much appreciation for what they've done for the program by sticking with us, working hard and helping transform it,'' she said. "We have a lot of gratitude for their leadership and what they did.''
So how do the Badgers get better without those seniors (to paraphrase the second-half of her message)? Healy addressed that question with some returning players on the flight home from Oregon. For one thing, she will be on the look-out for more walk-ons from the state of Wisconsin like Maria Van Abel and Ashley Van Zeeland. There are other "diamonds in the rough'' out there, she said, if you look.
"Those kids have made me a believer,'' Healy admitted.
The Badgers have done likewise with a softball season for the ages.