Home sweet home for Iowa softball

BY BEN ROSS | MARCH 23, 2012 6:30 AM

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This is it.

The Iowa softball team traveled roughly 14,000 miles to play 25 games over the course of 40 days, but the Hawkeyes will finally get to wake up in their own beds and play a game at a place they call home.

Iowa (10-15) will begin its Big Ten season when Wisconsin (11-9) travels to Iowa City on Saturday to take on the Hawkeyes in a three-game series at Pearl Field.

Both teams are coming off losses; Iowa dropped two games against No. 10 Missouri on March 21 in Columbia, Mo. The Badgers were defeated by Oklahoma State on March 18 in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Iowa's less than competitive record doesn't tell the entire story of the season. The Black and Gold have played eight teams ranked in the top 25 so far and were 1-10 against the premier competition. The win came on March 3 against Oklahoma State, when the Cowgirls were ranked No. 23; they fell out of the rankings before they faced Wisconsin, which has faced just one ranked team. The Badgers played then-No. 21 Florida State on Feb. 24 and 26 and lost both matches.

"That was intentional," second-year head Iowa coach Marla Looper said about the Hawkeyes' challenging schedule. "For us to become one of the best teams in the country, we have to play those teams and start beating them. That's when we become them."

The college softball RPI hasn't been released for the 2012 season yet, but it's likely Iowa would be near the top of the list seeing as no other team in the conference can boast such a strenuous pre-league schedule.

Spirits on the team haven't dampened by the losing record, either. The players have expressed a mutual understanding of Looper's methods and see it as a learning experience. They said they're confident their participation will build a winning program.

Senior first baseman Katie Keim said she sees the tough opening games as a positive for her team because they serve as learning experiences for what to expect in the Big Ten.

"We get to see some of the best pitchers. We get to play defense against the best hitters," Keim said. "It gives us looks at things we haven't seen before."

The Badgers swept Iowa in the last meeting between the two squads, a doubleheader on April 27, 2011. The losses didn't leave a particularly bitter taste for revenge in the mouths of Iowa's players, though. Several Hawkeyes said they don't consider Wisconsin a rival, and fail to carry the animosity towards the Badgers that is synonymous in many other sports.

Catcher Liz Watkins said she sees all Big Ten schools equally as rivals. But the Taylor Ridge, Ill., native didn't hide an ear-to-ear grin while describing her excitement to begin the Big Ten season this weekend against the Badgers.

"I think our pitchers and defense are doing really well right now," Watkins said. "I'm really looking forward to see what damage they can do on the field, and we're just going to bring our bats and whomp on some people."

Follow DI softball reporter Ben Ross on Twitter.

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