Tough early schedule dings Wisconsin Badgers softball’s record but sets stage for Big Ten
Before starting her eighth season directing the University of Wisconsin softball team last month, Yvette Healy stopped by athletic director Barry Alvarez’s office for a chat.
Healy’s Badgers team was looking at a major uptick in the strength of the non-conference schedule, and she equated the landscape with what the UW football team faced in playing four top-10 teams in the first six games of the 2016 season.
Alvarez’s response, in Healy’s recollection: “Just go make memories. Don’t get stressed out. If anything, it’s going to help your players.”
Still, Healy and her staff tried to prepare players for a schedule that has been the 21st-toughest out of 296 teams, especially after last year’s group started the season 21-2.
With Saturday’s home and Big Ten Conference opener against Rutgers at hand, a 13-11 record isn’t capturing as much attention. But the lead-up has been important in setting the stage for the back half of the schedule.
“I’m proud that every weekend we’ve had a signature win that they could talk about for a very long time,” Healy said. “It’s been a hard schedule, but to keep getting those marquee wins at this point of the year is pretty exciting.”
UW’s non-conference resume includes two victories over teams ranked in the top 50 of the Ratings Percentage Index: Texas (38th) and Auburn (21st). The Badgers blanked USC Upstate, which at the time was undefeated and ranked No. 24.
Losses to No. 1 Washington, No. 9 Arizona (twice) and No. 16 Oklahoma State have dinged the record but have the Badgers feeling more prepared for the conference season.
“Our coaches, right from the start, were like, ‘This is going to be so much harder than last year. You guys are going to be pushed,’” sophomore pitcher Kaitlyn Menz said. “Last year, we had a couple tough games but we didn’t have the strength of schedule that we have this year.”
They hope that’s obvious in their first weekend at home, which includes a 3 p.m. game on Saturday and an 11 a.m. game on Sunday against the Scarlet Knights at Goodman Diamond.
Last season, riding high with a 23-3 record after winning a series at Northwestern, the Badgers had cold water dumped on their heads in the form of a three-game sweep by Nebraska to open the home schedule.
They were just 3-9 at home in 2017, a sour mark on a 35-17 season that produced the program’s first All-American, catcher Chloe Miller, and in which they played in an NCAA regional championship game.
With the Big Ten tournament at Goodman Diamond May 10-12, UW wants to better protect its home turf.
“And so we might as well start this weekend,” Healy said.
Miller and her .426 average from last season are gone, but second baseman Kelsey Jenkins leads the team’s regular players in hitting at .375.
For Jenkins and four other seniors on the roster, this is the first season that hasn’t included a change on the coaching staff with Healy. Continuity of working with Healy, third-year assistant Kirsten Verdun and second-year staff member Danielle Zymkowitz has paid off.
“People are just more comfortable and feel a higher self-esteem about their play just when there’s familiarity between team, coaches, everything,” Jenkins said.
There has been comfort and familiarity on the mound for the Badgers, where Menz returns after being named to the Big Ten’s second team as a freshman.
She has been joined by freshman Haley Hestekin, the Wisconsin prep player of the year last season for Kaukauna, to split the innings and keep both of them fresher for the stretch run.
With better competition at the plate, Menz has seen her ERA and WHIP increase from last season. But she also has cut down her walks and increased her number of strikeouts per seven innings.
Like the team as a whole, Healy told Menz not to focus so much on the numbers from the non-conference part of the season.
That was hard on Menz, normally a numbers-driven individual, but she has come around to appreciate the growth in her game.
“I don’t think that I could have had some of the wins that I’ve had this year, last year,” she said. “So I think that the maturity level has gone up a little bit and I’ve just continued to improve.”