Badger Bits: Wisconsin softball is Madison's most unheralded team

Megan McCormick

UW sports like football and men's basketball and hockey receive much of the school's fanfare, but non-revenue sports like softball deserve some recognition, too.

The athletic spirit that prospers at the University of Wisconsin runs far beyond the campus' confines.

There are people that live and breathe Badger red from here to New York and from here to Los Angeles. With the emergence of football and basketball as perennial conference title contenders over the past couple decades, Wisconsin now carries a truly national brand.

Much of the sports buzz that captivates students and alumni alike comes from the revenue-grossing teams like football, and men's basketball and hockey. There isn't anything wrong with that fact, but there is an athletic spirit that runs just as strong in the sports that garner far less attention, too.

Look at softball, for example.

Before head coach Yvette Healy took over the program three years ago, Wisconsin softball had gone 99-153 in its previous five seasons. Now that script has been completely flipped.

Healy has compiled an impressive 102-51 record in her nearly three full seasons, and she's guided Wisconsin to back-to-back-to-back 30-win campaigns for the first time in program history.

This season, the Badgers are 38-9 and boast an impressive 15-5 conference record, which slots them second in the Big Ten standings behind Michigan. Oh, by the way, they've cracked the top 25 multiple times this season -- the first UW softball team to even receive a national ranking in over a decade. It has arguably the best season in school history, and that deserves to be recognized.

Not only are the Badgers turning heads with their play on the diamond, but who is doing it is perhaps even more impressive.

In the batter's box, it is lead-off hitter Mary Massei, who at just 5-foot-4 is hitting an incredible .429 with six home runs going into the team's final regular-season weekend. Three years ago, Massei's softball career and life seemed to be in jeopardy when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer just weeks before beginning her career at UW. Even though she got to Madison a semester later than originally planned, her remarkable comeback is now complete. She's cancer-free and hitting dingers like Dottie Hinson.

Senior pitcher Meghan McIntosh entered the season as Wisconsin's clear No. 2 starter. But after recording her second no-hitter of the year back in early April against rival Minnesota, you can now call her the bona fide ace. For good measure, she's got a minuscule 1.57 ERA and possesses a 12-4 record. The lefty from Sierra Vista, Ariz., is the unquestioned leader in the pitcher's circle.

Both players will be on display this weekend at home against Michigan State. The three-game series against the Spartans wraps up regular-season play before Wisconsin jets off to Lincoln, Neb., for its first Big Ten softball tournament since 2008. If you're in the Madison area, I encourage you to give the team a look and here's why:

I've covered Wisconsin athletics for about three years now. I've announced football and basketball games for WSUM, our student radio station here at UW, which has given me some incredible opportunities. I've been on the call for a B1G Championship game throttling of Nebraska and the unfortunate Rose Bowl loss to Stanford. Those are experiences I'll never forget.

But in being around the football and basketball teams as much as I've been, I've realized they operate more like a business than a collegiate sports team. That is absolutely no fault of the players, but there is an expectation to succeed that drives the way they conduct themselves. Sure, there are many guys that find the games of football and basketball truly enjoyable, but many of them are playing with the end goal being paydays at the next level. As a whole, the football and basketball teams don't play with the unbridled joy of the softball team.

On the shores of Lake Mendota sits Goodman Diamond, where everybody wearing the cardinal and white has a smile on their face. The fans and players are just happy to be part of a genuine experience. There are no expectations and no egos involved, just people who are there for the love of the game. That, in itself, is a breathe of fresh air.

LINKS:

Here is a great feature about Mary Massei and her comeback from cancer.

UWBadgers.com profiles Wisconsin's seniors and how much they've helped turn this softball program around.

Per the Louisiana Daily, here is the latest on the possible LSU-Wisconsin football matchup we could see in 2014.

Tom Mulhern of the Wisconsin State Journal takes a look at what members of the Badgers' 2010 offense are doing in the NFL.

Bo Ryan will be the honorary starter for a charity walk in Madison's Maple Bluff neighborhood tomorrow.

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