Wisconsin talent powers Badgers softball team into third straight NCAA tournament
When Haley Hestekin takes the mound for the University of Wisconsin softball team, she usually can look in multiple directions to spot teammates that share a common geographic bond with her.
Over the sophomore pitcher’s right shoulder are third baseman Jordan Little of Hudson and shortstop Lauren Foster of Wausau. Over her left is first baseman Kayla Konwent of Salem.
Behind her in center field is Ally Miklesh of Stevens Point. In the dugout is designated player Stephanie Lombardo of New Berlin.
Hestekin, from Kaukauna, is one of six Badgers lineup regulars from Wisconsin on a team that has produced one of the program’s best seasons.
“Every time you step on that field,” she said, “you’re representing something that’s way bigger than yourself.”
All told, there are nine Wisconsinites on the Badgers team that plays Notre Dame on Friday night in the first round of the NCAA tournament’s Norman Regional.
And while it’s common for in-state players to dot the UW roster, they haven’t always made the kinds of contributions that this year’s group has in delivering just the second 40-win season in program history.
It starts with Konwent, the Big Ten Conference player of the year whose prowess at the plate after missing most of her first two college seasons because of surgeries has been like a thunderbolt to the Badgers’ offense.
“I think a big thing about Wisconsin is the work ethic that comes from here,” said Konwent, who was a star for Westosha Central High School before joining UW. “I don’t have many friends from Wisconsin who aren’t hard working and just going to do whatever they have to to get the job done.”
Konwent is second in the country with a .477 batting average and is one of 10 finalists for the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year award.
Lombardo is third on the team behind Konwent and Taylor Johnson with 35 RBIs and has just one error in 173 chances when filling in at first base.
Little is tied for third with seven home runs, including a two-run shot in last Friday’s Big Ten quarterfinal victory over Ohio State.
Hestekin has gone the distance in nine of her 27 starts this season.
But it’s not just UW that has benefited from what one longtime state softball coach said was a good crop of players from Wisconsin in the last four years.
Drake senior pitcher Nicole Newman, a three-time first-team all-state player at Madison La Follette, last Friday set an NCAA record with her fifth perfect game of the season. Her 0.88 ERA in 206 innings is second in the country entering the NCAA regionals, where the Bulldogs play in Minneapolis.
Former Verona player Kori Keyes helped Detroit Mercy win an automatic bid to the NCAAs through the Horizon League postseason title. She provided a key, two-run single in a 2-0 victory over Illinois-Chicago in an elimination game last Saturday, then made a diving catch from third base on a bunt in a 1-0 victory in the championship contest.
With Konwent and Newman, Wisconsin has two of the 10 finalists for the national player of the year award. Only California, with three, has more.
That’s a feather in the cap for softball in Wisconsin, where players have to be hearty to deal with long winters and short playing seasons.
Former Verona coach Cindy Suess, vice president of the Fastpitch Softball Coaches Association and a 2018 inductee into the organization’s hall of fame, said the talent level has been high around the state in recent seasons.
It’s because of committed players who train hard, she said.
“We don’t have a population like the greater Chicago area or California, the big cities,” said Suess, who coaches at Horicon after stints at Oshkosh North and UW-Oshkosh. “But our top-notch kids have done really well.”
Wisconsinites who are looking to reach the top level of college softball often have to go elsewhere to play outside of the high school season. Lombardo and Konwent got experience in Chicago, while Hestekin went to Alabama.
“It definitely makes it a lot harder,” Hestekin said. “But doing whatever I can to be able to play at my home state (school), I think it’s worth it every single day of the week.”
Alongside the six starters from Wisconsin, the Badgers (40-12) also have three Madison-area natives as part of the team depth that coach Yvette Healy has touted: Former Verona players Savanna Rainey and Heather Rudnicki and former Madison La Follette player Tyra Turner.
Eight others are from Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota or Indiana, offering a Midwest flavor in a sport whose rosters often are stocked with players from warm-weather states.
“It’s pretty cool to look around and see what’s happening with softball in the state,” Healy said. “And I’m really proud. I’m from Chicago, so it’s not too far away. But that Midwest pride, to see some great cold-weather kids do it on a national stage where it’s all about the SEC and the Pac-12 when people think softball, it’s fun to see the Midwest.
“We’ve got great talent. We’ve got kids that are really athletic and driven. They can’t play outside all year long, but we’re trying to really level the playing field. And I’m proud to be one of the schools that’s doing it.”
This weekend, UW plays at the four-team, double-elimination regional at tournament top seed Oklahoma (49-2), which has won two of the last three NCAA championships and enters with a Division I-record 39-game winning streak. The Sooners play UMBC (30-22) in the opening round.
UW, which made the 64-team field for a program-best third straight time, drew the Fighting Irish (36-16) first but it’s hard to overlook the task of emerging from a group with such a dominant team at the top.
“Challenge accepted,” Lombardo said. “It’s going to be an awesome experience. Especially for the younger girls, some postseason experience is always really good. ... We’re just ready. We’re ready to go.
“We have the underdog mentality that Wisconsin usually has — and not just softball but a lot of our sports because it’s so cold. But we’re ready to fight our way through it.”