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Dennis Punzel | The Wisconsin State Journal | May 17, 2018

Wisconsin embraces ‘new lease on life' ahead of regionals

It's become one of the cliche scenes of modern collegiate sports.

As the NCAA tournament selections are announced on television, the camera turns to a team as it sees its school come up on the screen revealing its presence in the field. The reactions vary in enthusiasm level, sometimes genuine and at other times seemingly manufactured.

But there was nothing phony about the sheer joy the University of Wisconsin softball team expressed when the Badgers learned they had made it into the NCAA tournament. The boisterous, spontaneous celebration that broke out from the banquet room at Christy's Landing likely echoed all the way across Lake Waubesa.

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It was the kind of response to be expected from a team that was coming to grips with the reality that its season was over, only to be given a last-minute reprieve from the tournament selection committee, which gave UW the final at-large berth in the 64-team field.

"We understood how much on the bubble we were," UW coach Yvette Healy said. "I think everybody was prepared for it to not happen and use it as a growth opportunity and say, we were close and hopefully everybody gets fired up to not let this happen again. You come through and it's kind of a new lease on life."

The Badgers hope to take advantage on that new life this weekend as they play in the regional at Tuscaloosa, Alabama. UW opens Friday at 6 p.m. against Oregon State, while host and No. 12 seed Alabama plays Middle Tennessee State in the other first-round game of the double-elimination tournament.

Their mission is to become the first UW team to ever make it beyond the regional level. The Badgers have made it to the title game in each of the first three times in the tournament under Healy, including last season. But each time they lost the championship game.

"This year we're the very last team that gets in, so what better story?" Healy said. "If there was a year for you to go out and win the regional, it would be when you were the last team selected to go in."

The chances of the Badgers (28-21) making that happen figure to be largely dependent on the performance of their two pitchers — freshman Haley Hestekin and sophomore Kaitlyn Menz.

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Hestekin, who a year ago pitched Kaukauna to the WIAA Division 1 state title and was named the state's Player of the Year, has had a sensational finish to her first season at UW.

The right-hander had compiled a 17-6 record with a 2.45 ERA and has gone 9-1 with a 1.92 ERA over her last 11 games as the Badgers made their push toward the postseason.

Last year it was Menz who quickly ascended to team ace as she went 24-12 with a 2.55 ERA, earning the third most victories for a UW pitcher, including one over Missouri in the NCAA regional.

This season she is 11-13 with a 3.29 ERA and missed time late in the season after getting hit in the face by a ball during batting practice.

"We've seen great things from both of them at different times," Healy said. "I've been so impressed with Haley. When Kate got injured about a month ago she stepped up."

Hestekin was at her best in her last three games, holding Northwestern to one run in two victories in the final weekend of the regular season and then pitching a two-hit shutout against Purdue in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament.

Hestekin credits her late season success on Healy's faith in her early in the season, using her against powerful teams like Oklahoma State and Washington.

"She put me in those situations to prepare me for moments like this," Hestekin said. "I really just got thrown into it. Coming in I thought that I was prepared, but there's really nothing that can prepare you for this.

"I've really had to work on hitting my spots even more and really focus on that and sequences, how to set up batters. It's really been an adjustment but my teammates and coaches have really been there all along and they just say we're going to get better every game."

The two pitchers offer different looks to opponents, with Hestekin featuring a rise ball and Menz relying more on a drop ball.

Menz, who now pitches with a mask, said the big lesson she learned from her three starts in last year's regional is to not let the moment get too big for you. She's also learning to adjust to her new role as the No. 2 starter and supporting Hestekin.

"It was a little difficult at first because I always want the ball," Menz said. "But I learned that we have to do what's best for the team and there's no way one arm can get you through the whole season.

"I've just been in her back pocket talking, like, 'Hey, you're good, you're here for a reason,' and we just go out and do our thing."

Their thing has been good enough to help the Badgers realize their goal of back-to-back NCAA appearances. Now the test is to see if they can somehow be the first UW team to advance to a super regional.

"It would be just so amazing to get a first for everyone," senior second baseman Kelsey Jenkins said. "I think I would cry forever."