May 27, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Mary Massei really hadn't heard the ticking until after the Wisconsin softball team had fought back to split an April 30 doubleheader against Nebraska. Up until then, the little 5-foot-4 outfielder with the big heart hadn't given much thought to being on the clock.
But after Massei helped spark the Badgers to a 6-4 win over the Cornhuskers -- erasing the sting from a 12-0 beating in the opener; a humbling loss which had snapped a 13-game winning streak -- UW coach Yvette Healy got Massei thinking about her personal legacy as a senior.
"Coach Healy said, `Great career on this field,'" Massei recalled after the final regular season games at Goodman Diamond. "And it just kind of hit me that after four years I'm done playing here. It has been a great four years and I'm lucky beyond lucky to have this experience with these girls."
Massei couldn't say enough about how this season's team had forged its identity. After a challenging early-season schedule against ranked opponents, the Badgers overcame a lackluster start to the Big Ten season by winning 17 of 20 games to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
Although they once again got one of the toughest draws in the brackets -- the Badgers were dispatched for a second straight year to the Eugene Regional hosted by the overall No. 1 seed Oregon -- they split four games and finished with the second most wins (36) in program history.
"We have all stepped into our roles -- knowing exactly what our roles are on this team," Massei said. "We had a lot of power girls that had left and had produced a lot of numbers for our team last year. But we have a lot of speed on this team; we have a lot of slappers.
"We have a lot of girls that can pressure a defense and we take advantage of that. We love forcing errors, we love pressuring the other team and creating havoc. It puts a smile on our face and we're all laughing when it happens -- that's what we live for -- to pressure."
Those words may have more meaning to Massei than anyone else. Massei likes to smile. Her mother always used to call her "Mary Sunshine" because she carries such a positive attitude. Massei was happy long before Pharrell Williams hit a home run with his "Happy" video.
But to hear Massei use the phrase "that's what we live for" and "pressure" in the same sentence is especially poignant given what the California native had to deal with in her young life after accepting a scholarship from former head coach Chandelle Schulte to play softball at Wisconsin.
Massei committed to the Badgers confident that all the storm clouds hovering over the UW program would eventually give way to blue sky. "I knew I wanted to be a part of this team when we made a difference and turned the program around," Massei said.
But some things were out of her control. On Aug. 6, 2010, she learned that the lump near her throat would have to be dealt with through the removal of her thyroid gland and four malignant lymph nodes. Massei, then 18, was devastated by the diagnosis that she had cancer.
"But I knew that I was going to get through it," she kept telling herself and those around her in her hometown of Chino Hills. After undergoing a five-hour surgery at the City of Hope, there were still radiation treatments and a strict low-sodium diet before she could even think about playing again.
But it was still on her mind. Three days before surgery, Healy had lunch with Massei to reassure her that the Badgers family was behind her every step and a scholarship would be waiting for her when she was ready. "I just felt so comfortable talking with her from the very first time we met," Massei said.
Some might have taken the whole year off from school and softball. Not Massei, who enrolled in January for the second semester of classes at Wisconsin and had an immediate impact on the softball team as a true freshman even though she would be forced again to deal with a physical setback.
In the Big Ten opener against Penn State, Massei had a double, a triple and four RBIs before colliding with teammate Jennifer Krueger while chasing a "gapper" in left-center. Massei wound up with a black eye and three facial fractures that sidelined her for 14 games.
At the time of the injury, when many would be fretting about missing four to six weeks, Massei calmly reminded everyone, "I've had to go through so many more obstacles in my life, this is nothing."
|"As a staff, how can you ask for anything more?" Healy said of her team's approach.
"Stick with us. Buy in. Believe.
Work hard. And they've been the group to do it."
Four years later, she will leave UW as the career leader in hits, runs, doubles and total bases. Besides leading the team in batting with a .375 average this season, she also had 10 homers, one of four players in double-figures; Chloe Miller had 12 and Michelle Mueller and Stephanie Peace had 11 each.
"When I went through cancer, when I went through the injuries, all I knew is that I loved softball and that's what I wanted to be doing," Massei reflected. "I had a whole semester off of school and softball, and the only thing that was pushing me to get better -- besides my family and faith -- was the fact that I wanted to be here for my first season at Wisconsin. I wouldn't change a single thing."
Neither would Healy, who couldn't be prouder of her four seniors: Massei, Mueller, Peace and pitcher Cassandra Darrah. Together, they took UW softball to new heights. "Since Day One we talked about building this program up and leaving a legacy behind," Massei said.
• • • •
A couple of weeks before Oregon eliminated Wisconsin from the NCAA tournament -- the Badgers won two games in Eugene, matching the school record -- Healy tried to put the seniors in perspective from the standpoint of the journey each took to take the Badgers to another level.
"We didn't recruit them, all we were doing was trying to keep them," Healy said. "When I got the job, I called them and I said, `Stick with us. We can make this work.' And they all bought in. They've always been a group that has bought in; they cared about us, they're on the coaches' side.
"That goes a long way. Even when we have some crazy ideas, they've always been the ones to say, `Hey, Coach knows ... let's give this a shot, this just might work.' As a staff, how can you ask for anything more? Stick with us. Buy in. Believe. Work hard. And they've been the group to do it."
Last week, Healy added even more context.
"The year before, we graduated five scholarship kids that were major impact players," she said. "And we graduated four this year. You don't see that very often. We're only a 12-scholarship sport. To graduate nine in two years just doesn't happen and these were all kids that played in over 200 games."
Healy confided that it was difficult to talk about the recently-completed season in its totality because the Oregon losses "were still a little fresh." Healy and her coaches spent last week meeting individually with the players. "Breaking down how the season went," she said.
The caveat? "We're all in competition mode yet," Healy acknowledged. "I'm sure as we get a little more time away from it, we're going to really appreciate the accomplishments more. But it's a competitive group right up to the end. Our goal was to win the regional."
The heartbreak? "The end of the year is painful before it's gratifying," she said. "That's where everybody is at with graduating a big senior class that broke so many school records and rewrote the history book. There's still that time of mourning, everyone's still getting over the shock that it's over."
The reality? "We're starting to appreciate the fact," she said, "that at one point in the middle of the season we were around .500 and it looked pretty bad. But we were able to pull ourselves up and go on a run and we did some great things with ranked wins over Nebraska, Michigan and Northwestern."
The bottom line? "It's huge," Healy said of back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. "You're not trying to do something once in awhile. You're trying to create a legacy and have some longevity and doing things multiple times. It's a big deal for any school in the country, but at a school where it hasn't happened before, it makes it extra special and helps get things going in the right direction."
Citing the power output of her three seniors, Healy said, "That's pretty unheard of even in the most powerful programs in the country. You don't normally have four double-digit homer kids and to have three of them in your senior class makes it even more incredible."
How will the Badgers compensate for their loss next season beyond the return of Miller, who had an exceptional freshman season? Healy noted the return of Stefanni LaJeunesse, who missed this year with an injury, and the emergence of Sara Novak, who had big moments in May.
"We have some power kids in our program," Healy said.
But how do you replace Darrah, who tied the school record for pitchers with 87 career wins?
"Because she's not flashy, I don't think people realize how much of a workhorse she has been for us," Healy said. "She has been a 20-plus win kid every year. A lot of programs are happy to have 20 wins as a team. It's pretty amazing when you have one pitcher delivering 20-plus every single season.
"Big shoes to fill. But Taylor-Paige Stewart came along at the end of the season, and she's a 15-win kid. Taylor takes over as the No. 1. Of the emerging players, she was the most pleasant surprise. You look at her and Chloe as a battery and they should have a lot of fun years together.
"There will certainly be a lot of rebuilding to do," conceded Healy, who will have to count on some freshmen to complement Stewart. But after the Badgers finished among the top 32 teams in college softball, it can inspire those returning to carry on the senior's winning legacy, Healy said.
No obstacle should be too big to handle. Massei would tell them the same thing. This is nothing.