Despite the inevitable curveballs that come at the hands of Mother Nature, the University of Wisconsin–Madison Badgers’ softball program has been a fan favorite from the get-go. The 20-player team begins competitive play when temperatures tentatively, if ever, sneak above the freezing mark, and snow is a common sight. “It’s a warm-weathered sport played in a cold-weathered climate,” says coach Yvette Healy of the reality for the women wearing a UW Badgers softball uniform. “We’re kind of a road-warrior team because we travel a lot.”
The schedule for NCAA Division I college softball begins in February, “right after the Super Bowl,” Yvette says, with regular-season play continuing through May. The team’s commitment to the sport comes with some sacrifice. When regular-season play heats up in the dead of winter, the team typically devotes entire weekends away from Madison, flying to game destinations on Fridays.
Softball was added to the UW Badgers athletics program in 1996. Over the years, the team, which plays in the Leaders division of the Big Ten Conference, has enjoyed a number of triumphs, including eight NCAA tournament appearances. A high-water mark for the team came in 2013, when it achieved NCAA conference tournament championship status.
Being a part of the Big Ten is an exhilarating experience for all involved. “It’s such a great conference,” Yvette says. “There’s so much history to it. It’s very competitive.”
The program has experienced a renewed sense of vigor in recent years, spurred by the most recent string of NCAA tournament appearances, which began in 2017. “There’s been a lot of enthusiasm because we’ve never done three in a row before,” Yvette says. “We’ve been in an upward swing that way. Everyone is real proud of the girls for accomplishing that.” Outside of the recent three-year trend, the team made it to the NCAA tournament in 2001, 2002, 2005, 2013, and 2014.
While the team has been on a roll, several individual players have enjoyed successes of their own. In a postseason announcement in May, first baseman Kayla Konwent, No. 15, was named Player of the Year in the Big Ten Conference’s list of 2019 softball honorees. Kayla’s being named Player of the Year was notable on multiple fronts. She not only was the first Wisconsin student to earn the award, she was also the first Badger to receive an individual conference softball award since Big Ten first began presenting the honors in 1985. Kayla’s accomplishments this past season included notching a .500 batting average during conference play, ranking her as one of four Big Ten students to make such an achievement in 2019.
While the team’s prowess is notable and commendable, Yvette says fan support has been an undeniable part of the process, particularly for a team that plays many of its games in southerly states. “It’s a big deal to these women,” Yvette says. “The support is definitely felt.” Even when Badgers fans do not pack the stands at an away game, Yvette says support is shown remotely. Many of the games can be viewed on cable and satellite through the Big Ten Network and ESPN.
Yvette is the third coach in Badgers softball history. She began her duties in 2011, and the upcoming season is her 10th consecutive at the helm. There were several factors that came together as Yvette contemplated the life change before the start of the 2011 softball season. The Chicago native says Madison’s relatively close proximity to her original stomping grounds was appealing in and of itself, but there was one pivotal person who played a key role in making the decision one worth pursuing. “My interview with coach (Barry) Alvarez was great,” Yvette says of her meeting with the UW’s athletic director. “That interview sold me on taking this job. He’s so knowledgeable. He has a way of keeping it about the students and the experience.”
Having the opportunity to help reshape the team into its current form was another challenge Yvette was ready and willing to undertake. “It’s been a really cool experience ever since.”
When asked about the recent success, Yvette points to some of the team’s teaching and training activities, which, she adamantly points out, extend beyond simple warm-up exercises. The goal is to offer the women wearing a Badgers softball uniform a well-rounded training regimen. An initiative known as “Wellness Wednesdays,” for example, emphasizes mindfulness and other activities that apply to the playing field, to the classroom, and all other facets of life. The midweek training activities sprinkle in elements of what Yvette describes as “sports psychology,” and are designed to help the players overcome adversity and challenges as they inevitably arise.
Other mantras emphasized during the Wednesday activities touch on confidence, speaking with clarity, selflessness, and helping other teammates as needs arise—all the while honing in on the competitive spirit that is an important backbone to the playing field. “It’s a pretty inspirational program, and we’ve taken a lot of pride in it,” Yvette says. “I think it’s helped us out on the field. … We’ve got some very impressive women.”
Dave Fidlin is a freelance writer who has a special affinity for Madison. Dave’s career spans nearly 20 years, and he’s grateful for the opportunity to learn something new each day through his professional pursuits.