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Wisconsin Softball prepares for NCAA Tournament

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Should be fun to watch!

Bucky wants ‘Bama!

The Wisconsin softball team (28-21) heads into the NCAA tournament for the second straight year, and this time the journey begins in the Tuscaloosa regional. The Badgers will face Oregon State, Middle Tennessee State, and 12th-seeded (and host) Alabama.

Before previewing Wisconsin’s chances in the tournament, let’s take a look back at the season that earned the Badgers an at-large bid.

Wisconsin’s season so far

Wisconsin finished seventh in the Big Ten and was eliminated from the conference tournament on Friday in a 6-0 loss to Minnesota that featured a four-plus hour weather delay.

The Badgers have played better of late. After a mid-season four-game losing streak, Wisconsin held a 16-16 record and was in danger of missing the NCAA tournament. They turned things around in a big way, however, and went 12-5 down the stretch to earn an at-large NCAA bid.

Senior infielder Kelsey Jenkins has been fantastic for the Badgers all year. Jenkins ranks 31st in the NCAA for batting average (.415) and fifth in the country in OBP (.575).

The next highlight of the year is senior shortstop Brooke Wyderski, who has six homers and a healthy OPS of 1.023.

Wisconsin fans should be most excited about freshman infielder Taylor Johnson. Johnson is the top home run hitter on the team with eight dingers on the season. Johnson slumped throughout February, and entered March with a .184 batting average. Since then, she’s lifted her average to .299 on the year and has ten hits in the last eight games, including four home runs.

The Badgers’ top pitcher is freshman and Kaukauna, Wis., native Haley Hestekin. She has a 17-6 record on the year and a 2.45 earned run average. Hestekin splits time with sophomore Kaitlyn Menz, who holds a 11-13 record and a 4.23 ERA.

Depth is not a strength for the Badgers. They see a pretty significant drop-off from Hestekin to Menz, and they are not particularly deep offensively. Among the 11 players with over 30 at-bats, only four are hitting over .250.

Finally, Wisconsin has struggled against top-25 teams. In seven opportunities, the Badgers have only pulled off one victory, which was against 16th-ranked Auburn.

Wisconsin’s last trip to the tournament

Since Wisconsin’s first season in 1996, it has qualified for seven NCAA tournaments. UW has never hosted the regional round (nor survived it), and it has a history of getting sent to the Oregon regional. Tuscaloosa is a sight for sore eyes.

Last year, as each of the last three times Wisconsin played in the tournament, Wisconsin was eliminated by a top-5 Oregon team. Wisconsin nearly upset Oregon in round 2, but they blew a 5-2 lead and lost 5-6. The Badgers earned another chance at Oregon, but the Ducks eliminated Bucky 0-9.

How to follow Wisconsin in the NCAA regional

First, it is important to note that the NCAA regionals are a four-team double-elimination tournament. Usually, this means that the surviving team needs to win four games in five attempts—two wins against the weakest two teams, and two wins against the strongest team.

On paper, this iteration of Wisconsin softball is not the most accomplished in program history. In fact, it isn’t particularly close. However, Wisconsin might have the best chance to advance to the Sweet 16 in program history. Instead of facing a top-5 regional, Bucky will have a break, albeit a minor one, with facing 12th-ranked Alabama. (Note that even this seeding is controversial).

Don’t get too excited, though.

Alabama, like Wisconsin’s previous stumbling block Oregon, is a perennial power in softball. This is their 14th straight time hosting a regional, and they haven’t lost a regional game in Tuscaloosa since 2007. That’s right, Bama is on a 30-0 run in NCAA regional games [ed. note: Daaaaaaang].

Getting a single win against Alabama will be tough enough. Recall that Wisconsin has a 0.143 winning percentage against top-25 teams. Unfortunately, a single win against Alabama will be insufficient. Since Wisconsin cannot count on Oregon State or Middle Tennessee State to beat ‘Bama, Wisconsin will need to upset the Tide twice. Of course, they will need to take care of business against Oregon State and Middle Tennessee State as well.

To make it worse, it is very rare for a visiting team to advance past the regional round. All hosting teams advanced in 2017, and 14/16 hosting teams advanced in 2016.

Oregon State is a pretty strong team as well, and is probably a slight favorite over Wisconsin. The first round is critical in a double-elimination tournament. The winner could avoid the day two double-header with a round two win, while the losing team will have to win four games in two days.

For Wisconsin to succeed, it will need stellar performances from their second-tier players. Menz will likely need to give stud pitcher Hestekin some rest over the weekend, and if Wisconsin plans to survive the weekend, Menz will likely need to hold her own against Alabama. Furthermore, Wisconsin will need to find some offensive production from those who are currently batting below .250.

Here is the schedule for the Tuscaloosa regional. Check out NCAA.com for up-to-date information.

Round 1
Opponent: Oregon State
Time: 6pm (Central) Friday, May 18th
TV: ESPN 3 or Watch ESPN App

First Elimination Game (If Wisconsin loses Round 1)
Opponent: Loser of Alabama/Middle Tennessee State
Time: Saturday, May 19th
TV: ESPN 3 or Watch ESPN App

Round 2 (If Wisconsin wins Round 1)
Opponent: Winner of Alabama/Middle Tennessee State
Time: Saturday, May 19th
TV: ESPN 3 or Watch ESPN App

Second Elimination Game (If Wisconsin loses Round 2 or wins First Elimination Game)
Opponent: Probably Oregon State
Time: Saturday, May 19th
TV: ESPN 3 or Watch ESPN App

Round 3
Winner of round 2 versus winner of second elimination game
Time: Sunday, May 20th
TV: ESPN 3 or Watch ESPN App

Round 4
Rematch of round 3 if neither team has two losses
Time: Sunday, May 20th
TV: ESPN 3 or Watch ESPN App