2013 Big Ten Softball Tournament: On brink of NCAA berth, Wisconsin readies for Northwestern

Outfielder Mary Massei figures to play a critical role in Wisconsin's Big Ten Tournament opener. - UW Athletic Communications

The Badgers are seeking to knock out the team that stole an at-large bid from them last year.

Payback. Revenge. What goes around comes around.

The Wisconsin (39-11, 16-7) softball team can adopt all of these monikers Friday afternoon when it takes on Northwestern (31-21, 12-10) in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.

Just a season ago, a decisive Wildcats’ series win over the Badgers at Goodman Diamond proved the difference between which team would go on to receive an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament, as NU jumped over UW in the RPI throughout the season and became just the second Big Ten team beside Michigan to earn a spot in the 2012 NCAA tournament.

Now, after sweeping Northwestern in a home doubleheader in 2013, Wisconsin remains focused on the task at hand: beating an opponent a third time.

“There are a lot of people you’re going to match up with like Northwestern,” Wisconsin head coach Yvette Healy said in a Monday press conference. “They’ve got a tremendous amount of postseason experience, and we’re building it.”

The Badgers are currently coming off a first-round bye after clinching the No. 4 seed in the conference tournament, while the No. 5 seed Wildcats defeated the No. 12 seed Indiana on Thursday by a score of 6-3.

For all intents and purposes, it already appears Wisconsin is in to the tournament based on its high RPI of 26, third in the conference only to Nebraska (11) and conference champion Michigan (7). Just a season ago, Wisconsin was in the 50’s in RPI and missed out on the tournament. However, thanks to a tough non-conference schedule, the Badgers look poised to make their first NCAA berth since 2005.

Still, Wisconsin cannot afford to lose to Northwestern after allowing Michigan State to win its final conference series --and at home, too. If the Badgers had swept the Spartans, they would have earned the No. 2 seed over the Cornhuskers.

“We can’t take anything for granted and that showed [against Michigan State],” senior infielder Shannel Blackshear said. “These games are the kind of games that show anybody can beat you ... I think that was a lesson learned for our team.”

“We didn’t play that great last weekend,” Healy said. “We haven’t peaked too soon. We’re hoping we have two or three kids that have the weekend of their life this weekend, or after we have a chance to do something really special.”

Northwestern comes into the quarterfinal matchup just below Wisconsin in team offense, batting .307 collectively as a group, good for third in the conference. Leading the Wildcats offensively and defensively is sophomore and 2013 All-Big Ten first-team selection Amy Letourneau. Besides batting .349 with 42 RBIs and 13 home runs, Letourneau is also the ace of the Northwestern staff, posting a 2.50 ERA and a 21-12 record. Expect strikouts when dealing with Letourneau too -- she leads the Big Ten with 281 batters fanned in just 212 innings.

Wisconsin will most likely counter Letourneau on the mound with their own first-team all-conference selection, junior Cassandra Darrah. Leading Wisconsin with a 23-5 record and 1.85 ERA, Darrah has once again been the rock of the Badgers in 2013. After fellow senior pitcher Meghan McIntosh, who is having a terrific season with a 2.15 ERA and 12-6 record, got roughed up twice by the Michigan State offense last weekend, it seems a safe bet to guess that Darrah will start things off on the mound for the Badgers.

The Wildcats will have to worry about the Badgers’ mighty “M’s”, as well, also known as Massei and Massey. Junior outfielder Mary Massei and senior utility player Whitney Massey were both named to the All-Big Ten first team.

Massei led the Big Ten in hits with 74 from the leadoff position with a monstrous .433 batting average, while Massey led the league again in doubles with 18 to compliment her 46 RBIs from the three-spot.

The pair each went 1-for-6 from the plate against the Wildcats in the team’s doubleheader this season.

Massey, who Healy calls “fearless,” made her way into the history books this season, blasting her 13th home run of the year in the series finale with Michigan State, giving her the single-season record at Wisconsin.

Like her teammates, Massey is focused on sharpening her team’s focus for a game that could potentially seal the team’s spot as an at-large in the NCAA tournament over the squad that stole that from them a year ago.

“If Michigan State can knock us down, I’m sure anybody can,” Massey said. “It’s going to make us try that much harder and not take anything for granted.”

Wisconsin and Northwestern will play at 11:30 a.m. CT today.

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