Wisconsin eyes highest conference finish in program history

first_imgKelsey Fenton / The Badger HeraldWith the regular season coming to a close for the Wisconsin softball team this weekend, it is perfect timing for the Big Ten conference race to come back into focus for the Badgers.After league-leading No. 9 Michigan dropped a pair of games in its series to No. 16 Nebraska during the weekend, a faint breeze of the conference championship blew Wisconsin’s way. Still 2.5 games behind the Wolverines, Wisconsin will become Northwestern fans throughout this weekend, as they need three Wolverine losses.It remains bleak, but the Badgers don’t even care. Their focus remains on the team at hand — Michigan State, their opponent for the weekend.“We don’t play Michigan right now … we’ll worry about them when we get to them,” Wisconsin hitting coach Randy Schneider said. “We feel the same way about [Michigan State] that we would about Michigan.”As far as the Spartans (22-23, 7-9 Big Ten) go, they’ll be playing the Badgers (38-9, 15-5) for the first time since 2011 since the two squads missed each other last season. It was probably a good thing for Sparty, however, as MSU went winless in the conference last season and a series with last season’s record-breaking Badgers could have made that wound even worse.This is a different Michigan State team, however. The Spartans won their first six Big Ten games of the season, surprising just about every team in the conference.“Why they have had down years, the last couple of years, I don’t know,” Schneider said.But the great start quickly faded as MSU lost nine of their next 10 conference affairs, dropping them from a solidified second place to the eight spot. Nonetheless, they are a different Michigan State team than the ones that have faced the Badgers in the past.The Spartans are led by a trio of hitters in Kylene Hopkins, Alyssa McBride and Jayme O’Bryant. However, Hopkins (.403), McBride (.331) and O’Bryant (.326) are the only MSU players batting above .260 on the season. The Spartans’ offense is different than most.They fully ratify the softball strategy of lefty slap hitters that can poke a ground ball out of the batters box and cruise down the line for a single. Unlike most lineups that use two, maybe three lefty slap hitters, Michigan State uses six of its nine spots as such. It’s something that will be on Wisconsin’s mind throughout the weekend.“As a right-handed pitcher, it’s a little bit harder, because now you’re throwing across your body [to the hitter],” Wisconsin pitching coach Tracie Adix said, acknowledging they’ll still use their same pitching rotation of right-handed junior pitcher Cassandra Darrah and left-handed senior pitcher Meghan McIntosh.“We’ll use them both,” Adix said. “Meghan gives a little bit of a different look … there’s something about her that catches hitters off guard, both righties and lefties.“With Cass, it’s just a little bit harder because … if you’re throwing the ball to a lefty, it usually cuts [across] the plate at some point. That just gives her a little more availability to be hit … We will definitely go to Cass’ strengths.”Pitching has certainly been Wisconsin’s strength as of late, allowing just nine runs in its last seven games. However, Wisconsin’s hitting has picked up at the moments when it’s been needed the most.“I think we actually could hit better,” Schneider said of the second-best hitting team in the Big Ten. “What I am happy about is the timing of our hitting. It’s been coming at a really good time.”Right on time for the stretch run is senior first baseman Shannel Blackshear. After battling through a rough April patch with a hit in the second game against Northwestern, Blackshear tore through Indiana during the past weekend, going 5-for-11 with 5 RBI.She is also one of seven seniors that will be playing at Goodman Diamond for the last time this weekend, celebrating Senior Day this Sunday.“I don’t think it has really sunk in yet,” Blackshear said, who will be accompanied by her father from Arizona for her last home game. “I think the day of I’ll probably be crying and excited.”Sounds like a player on the team that never looks beyond its opponent of the moment. Right now that moment is Michigan State. Senior Day is looming, as is the Big Ten tournament. You couldn’t tell though because the regular season is still three games from being finished.“We’re just trying to get through the weekend and then plan everything out,” Blackshear said. “We’re trying to just keep it step-by-step. We do better when we do that.”last_img

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