Softball: A ‘great opportunity'

Badgers achieve goal of reaching NCAA Tournament, putting more objectives within reach

MADISON — For Karen Gallagher, the only softball coach the University of Wisconsin has known in the 10-season history of the program, this is an understandably exciting moment. Sunday, her Badgers received their third invitation to the NCAA Tournament, along with an added prize: the opportunity to host one of 16 four-team regionals. Beginning Friday evening, Wisconsin, No. 23 DePaul, No. 6 Oregon State and UW-Green Bay will take part in a three-day, double-elimination tournament at Goodman Diamond for the right to advance to next weekend's Super Regional.

"At this point I think it is a great opportunity for this program," Gallagher said. "For our younger players (and) for our kids that are leaving the program. Our seniors are motivated. That was one of their goals this year to get to an NCAA Tournament and to host it and be at home it just kind of tops the cake for us at this point."

"I think it's a great tribute to our university and to our program right here," sixth-year senior Meghann Reiss said. "And to be able to host, be one of the 16 sites here, it's a great honor to all of us."

UW enters the tournament riding high. Prior to a 10-1 loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, the Badgers had won 18 of 20 games. Sophomore Eden Brock (20-9), who will start the regional opener against DePaul Friday, won 10 straight decisions before taking the loss versus the Wolverines.

"With the way we are playing right now I don't think we could ask for anything more coming into this tournament," sophomore center fielder Sam Polito said. "Winning the games we've won the past month, it's just been great."

Wisconsin is the third seed in the regional, but with the momentum the Badgers carry into the event, and home field advantage by their side, the team likes its chances to advance.

The Badgers previously reached the tournament in 2001 and 2002, and are just 1-4 all-time in NCAA play. Reaching the Super Regional — a best-of-three series to qualify for the College World Series — would be a defining achievement for the UW program.

"It would be huge," Gallagher said. "I think it would put us on the map nationally…I think we're a very respected program as it is but I think when you win a national tournament to get you to another level, I think it opens the eyes of a lot of people. I think right now we are one of the hottest teams in the country… I think people are keeping an eye on us."

After falling to 13-19 this season prior to the 18-2 run, reaching the tournament is no small achievement. But the Badgers' goals stretch further.

"We know that this is another step toward the goal of getting to the World Series," Reiss said. "But we've got to take it one game at a time."

The only players on UW's roster who suited up for the 2002 tournament are the six current seniors—including Reiss.

"I think the message (from the seniors) is more the way that we're acting rather than talking," Reiss said. "We all know this is a really big deal. But it's to carry yourself out and act like it is NCAAs, but you've been doing something right in the last 20-some games… Not to get too excited about it; just keep playing the way you are."

Reiss, one of four team captains, and the rest of the seniors have made extremely significant contributions this season. Catcher Boo Gillette (.351 batting average, 10 home runs, 34 RBI), shortstop Kris Zacher (.404, 9, 21), left fielder Anastasia Miller (.320, 11, 36) and right fielder Natalie Phillips (.274, 2, 10) are among the team's offensive leaders. Pitcher Katie Layne is 10-8 with a 2.51 ERA.

"They are ready to take that step and they are ready to be the people that are going to lead this team to that next level," Gallagher said.

But with eight sophomores, eight freshmen and just two juniors on the roster, the Badgers will be a young team next season.

"I think it's just going to teach them what it's like to be in this position and what it takes to get in this position," Gallagher said. "We have a lot of growing to do but I think overall what it's going to do for the program: It's going to help us tremendously in recruiting. And teach the city of Madison what top-notch Division I softball is about and to be able to showcase an NCAA Regional Tournament is huge."

"It's always a plus for the program," Gallagher said. "It's huge for us to host. I think you are going to bring in Green Bay and DePaul and you are going to have a great fan base this weekend as well, showcasing our wonderful facility here. I think there's a lot of pluses right now."

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