Badgers host hot Crusader squad
The Badgers softball team is hotter than it has been all season long right now. After winning 10 of its last 11 games, Wisconsin (25-21, 9-9 Big Ten) takes a break from conference play tonight for a doubleheader against Valparaiso (11-38-1, 10-11 MCC). The Badgers are getting a Crusaders squad that has won three of its last four games, despite a season filled with struggles. Valparaiso has done well in conference play this year, just one game under .500, but has only won a single non-conference game all season.The Badgers and Crusaders met earlier this season Apr. 13 in a 9-0 Badger rout. The Wisconsin women collected nine hits and struck out only twice as they defeated Valparaiso.Since that meeting, Valparaiso has recorded a surprising tie against Purdue in a nine-inning affair and also posted its first and only non-conference win. But those have been the high points for Valparaiso, as the rest of its wins have come in the relatively weak Mid-Continent Conference.The Badgers seem to be playing the best softball they have in three years. Wisconsin has clinched a position in the Big Ten tournament for the first time since 2002, moving into fifth place in the Big Ten.“I think clinching the Big Ten took a little pressure off [the players],” head coach Karen Gallagher said. “They’ve got a lot going on. They’ve got finals coming up, another big weekend coming up and then getting ready for Big Tens.”The Badgers have been putting it all together at the right time. Overcoming the seemingly difficult task of playing the entire second half of its conference schedule on the road, the Badgers have won six of their last eight Big Ten contests and have done so with the defense that had disappeared earlier in the season.“I was really, really proud of our defense in our first game on Friday that we played against Iowa,” Gallagher said. “And I think our two games yesterday [May 1] were two of the best defensive games we’ve played.”The Wisconsin offense continues to surge as well. Behind the hot bat of Kris Zacher, who leads the team with a .405 batting average, four triples and a .444 on-base percentage, the Badgers are hitting .278 as a team and have smashed 42 home runs already this season. Catcher Boo Gillette has been the team’s main power source all season long, going deep 10 times while slugging .649, seventh in the Big Ten. She is also the second leading batter on the team with a .365 batting average.The Badgers have also gotten hitting from some unlikely sources. Second baseman Athena Vasquez, who had some trouble earlier in the season, seems to have found her swing, and she has come alive of late. Batting as low as .137 this season, Vasquez has improved her average of late to a respectable .193 clip.“She seems more confident at the plate,” Gallagher said. “She’s finally fundamentally putting things together for herself, mentally as well as physically.”The Badgers will face a Valparaiso team that has the pitching to keep them in games. At the top of the rotation is Brittany Atteberry. The senior has a 3.31 ERA overall but a 2.11 ERA in conference play. Freshman Chris Halstead is second on the staff with a 3.87 ERA and 58 strikeouts on the season. While the Valpo pitchers may not impress anyone, they have kept the Crusaders in games with consistent outings all season.The Crusaders have been, for the most part, duds at the plate this season. Their best hitter Megan Carroll is hitting only .303 with 14 RBI, but she does have 12 doubles. As a team, Valparaiso is hitting only .210, barely enough to squeak out five hits per game.One thing Valparaiso must be aware of is if they do get a lead in either of the games tonight, they should do whatever they can to hold it because the Badgers have shown a capacity for coming back from large deficits this season. In consecutive games Apr. 2 and 3, the Badgers came back from being down 3-0 and 4-0 against conference opponents Ohio State and Penn State, respectively. Two weekends ago, Wisconsin overcame a 6-1 deficit with eight runs in the top of the sixth inning against Indiana. Last weekend, the Badgers were down 3-0 against No. 19 Iowa until a four-run sixth inning propelled them to the lead and the victory.“I think if other teams know that if they have a two, three or four-run lead, that it’s not the end of the game because we’re capable of putting big innings together and putting big hits together,” Gallagher said of her team’s come-from-behind capabilities.