Goodman Diamond, the UW women's softball stadium, is located on the west edge of campus near the UW Hospital, about a Prince Fielder home run from Lake Mendota. Late last week, just days before the Badgers' home opener - which occurs more than halfway through the season - there was slush in the dugouts and a few stubborn piles of snow dotted the infield.
Such inclement weather is one reason the fast-pitch team plays the first 35 games of its 57-game season on the road, in places like Las Vegas, Tampa, Austin and Palo Alto. The trips are nice, says head coach Chandelle Schulte, but the Badgers have been itching to play for their own fans on their own field.
"The sport is meant to be played outside," Schulte says, as her team stretches before a practice under fluorescent lights on artificial turf at the UW's McClain Center. "When you go away for a tournament, playing games outside, and then come back in, psychologically there's an impact. But that's what sports are about. You never know what's going to happen on any given day, so you take it as a challenge and hope to get through it."
Schulte is in her third season at Wisconsin, which presents a little more of a challenge, weather-wise, than her previous stop, the College of Charleston in South Carolina. But the tradeoff is her players' work ethic.
"I like kids who work hard," she says. "I like players who don't expect to get anything handed to them and appreciate everything they get."
That describes senior catcher Joey Daniels, who came to Wisconsin from Oakley, Calif. Daniels, a co-captain, says her teammates take playing a warm-weather sport at a cold-weather school in stride.
"We've played in 20 degrees with snow before," she says. "We're definitely getting used to this."
The Badgers were 10-25 going into Wednesday's double-header against Loyola. They'll host double-headers against Purdue and Indiana this Friday and Saturday, respectively, and five more home games next week. Most notably, Michigan comes to town on April 11 and 12. The Wolverines are 25-3 and ranked sixth in the nation.
The team hopes to do well enough against Big Ten opponents to earn a spot in the conference tournament. (Right now, it's 0-4 in conference play, which has a 20-game season.) Schulte deliberately scheduled tough non-conference opponents to help her players mature.
"We're a young team, and you can see that in our scores," she says, noting that only three of her current players had significant playing time last year. "We've been in almost every ball game, and the difference is just one bad inning here or there."
The result, according to the players, is a fun, tight-knit team with a bit of an edge.
"Our theme this year is that we're warriors," says senior shortstop Lynn Anderson. "We have the word 'warrior' on T-shirts, and all the letters stand for something." Before she can provide the list, Daniels interrupts: "It essentially means we're bad-ass."
Last June, visitors to area sports bars might have been surprised to see the attention being paid to the college women's softball championships.
Game three of the 2007 NCAA College Women's World Series on ESPN2 drew 1,676,000 households and a 1.8 Nielsen rating. Those aren't football numbers by any stretch, but they compare favorably to the X Games and regular-season college basketball.
"We actually restructured our entire tournament because ESPN came to us a couple years ago and said, 'Hey, this is hot,'" says Schulte. "We made it more like baseball with a regional, a super-regional and a World Series."
More important, the NCAA made some key rule changes designed to speed up the game and make it better for viewing on TV. Take the "10-second rule," which states:
"The pitcher must be on the pitcher's plate and the batter in the batter's box within 10 seconds after the pitcher receives the ball or after the umpire calls, 'Play ball.' After both the pitcher and batter are in position, the pitcher has five seconds to begin her pitching motion."
Purists might eschew such blatantly commercial changes; Schulte embraces them, feeling that a quicker pace is more exciting.
"The average softball game is an hour and 45 minutes, so it's not as long as a baseball game, and you can bring the whole family out." she says. "For people who have never seen it, they kind of like it."