Softball: riding high into tourney

Badgers have won 17 of their last 19 games as they ready for Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament

The University of Wisconsin softball team is enjoying a wave of momentum as it opens Big Ten Tournament play at 1:30 p.m. Friday, with a quarterfinal matchup with fourth-seeded Ohio State (32-16 overall, 9-7 Big Ten) in Ann Arbor, Mich.

If the fifth-seeded Badgers (30-21, 11-9) prevail, they will face top seeded Michigan (53-4, 15-2), the No. 1 ranked team in the nation, in the semifinals at 6:30 p.m. Friday. The Wolverines dispatched eight seed Michigan State Thursday evening.

A month ago, the Badgers' season looked to be in disarray. UW had lost eight of nine games, including seven consecutive Big Ten contests, to fall to 13-19 overall and 3-7 in the conference.

But UW brushed that stretch aside in emphatic fashion, closing out the regular season winning 17 of its last 19 games, including eight of its last 10 Big Ten contests — all of which were on the road. The Badgers have won their last seven games overall, a season-best winning streak.

"It was like, ‘No, this is just not happening,'" senior shortstop Kris Zacher said of the 1-8 stretch. "We all came together and knew what we had to do and got it done."

The Badgers' offense has set the tone through the end-of-season rally, averaging 6.58 runs per game in the past 19 games. Eight of UW's nine regulars have hit for better than a .300 batting average in that time; as a team UW is hitting .329 during the 17-2 spurt.

That offensive proficiency has helped UW overcome deficits in seven of their last 17 victories, including come-from-behind wins in the last four games. It helps that the Badgers are matching efficiency with unprecedented power, with 24 home runs in the past 19 games and 10 round trippers in their last four contests.

"It definitely gives us confidence to know that we have the long ball," senior catcher Boo Gillette said. "But I think having a good batting averages and on-base percentages is more important because if you hit a home run it's only one run. But if people are on base when you hit it it helps you come back a lot easier."

Prior to this season UW had never hit more than two home runs in a game. Last week the Badgers had games with two, three and five home runs, giving them 12 multi-homer games this season. UW has won all 12 of those games, including six with three or more round trippers.

"When you gain momentum it kind of becomes contagious and our hitting certainly has been contagious this year," head coach Karen Gallagher said. "It makes the game more fun and I think it takes a little bit more pressure off pitchers. And even when we are not playing great defense we know we can score runs."

UW's offense has been gaudy all season long, led by the quartet of seniors Zacher, Gillette and left fielder Anastasia Miller and freshman first baseman Katie Hnatyk, all of whom were named third-team All Big Ten Thursday.

Zacher, Gillette and Miller dot the Badgers' career record books and are having career years in their final campaigns. Miller's 11 home runs this season are a school record. Gillette (10), Zacher (9) and Hnatyk (9) round out the top four single-season home run tallies in program history, and Zacher and Gillette are tied atop UW's career home run list with 20. Hnatyk's seven home runs in conference games is tied for the Big Ten lead and her 18 conference RBIs are third-best in the league.

Prior to 2005, UW's team record for home runs in a season was just 23. This year the Badgers have smashed 52 round trippers.

Home runs played a key role in UW's two wins over OSU early this season. In the Badgers' Big Ten opener April 1 in Madison, Zacher hit a solo home run in the bottom of the sixth to give UW a 2-1 win. The next day Hnatyk, Gillette and freshman right fielder Ricci Robben all homered in the fourth inning to turn a 3-0 deficit into a 4-3 lead. The Badgers would go on to win 9-7 in eight innings.

"I think we have the momentum on our side since we beat them twice," Zacher said.

The Buckeyes, though, are also on a roll, having won 12 of their last 14 and five of their past six conference games entering postseason play.

NCAA Tourney up next?

It appears that Wisconsin is in good shape to make the NCAA Tournament (first round play begins May 19), but a win over OSU Friday would certainly help the Badgers' résumé.

"I think going 17-2 in the last [19] games has definitely helped us," Gillette said. "I think a good outing in the Big Ten would definitely help our chances to get there. We're hoping for it but we're not looking past the Big Ten."

Vazquez on the mend

After suffering a rib injury last weekend against Minnesota, starting second baseman Athena Vasquez will not be available for the Big Ten Tournament. The sophomore will be replaced in the lineup by junior Kaitlin Reiss, who does have 16 starts under her belt this season.

Vasquez, one of UW's better defensive players, hit .333 (15 of 45) with 11 RBI over her past 18 games, raising her season batting average from .137 to .212. Reiss is 7 of 39 at the plate this season (.179 average) with two RBI.

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