The NCAA’s decision on March 12 to cancel all remaining winter and spring championships due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic drastically altered the senior softball seasons of two 2016 Verona Area High School graduates.
In late March, the NCAA granted spring sport student-athletes an extra year of athletic eligibility. But member schools had the final say in deciding whether or not to grant financial aid to seniors seeking another year of eligibility.
Nicole Neitzel has decided to go to grad school at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and play her senior season for the Warhawks.
Heather Rudnicki, on the other hand, will not have a chance to play her senior season at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as the school decided to not pursue waivers that would extend senior athletes’ eligibility. Rudnicki still had the option to transfer, but she’s already enrolled in grad school at UW in pursuit of a Master of Accountancy degree.
UW experienced mixed results with a loaded nonconference schedule to begin the 2020 season.
The Badgers split with two-time national champion Arizona State, as well as Louisville and North Carolina in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. UW beat four-time national champion and last year’s national runner-up Oklahoma 4-3 on Feb. 23, but fell to defending national champ UCLA and 2019 national semifinalist Washington.
The Badgers went 4-1 at the USF Tournament to close the season, finishing with a 14-10 record.
“I live with four other senior teammates and the way we all found out (about the season being canceled) was the Big Ten tweeting about it,” Rudnicki said. “We were all in shock at first. At that moment, we never thought the entire season would be canceled and we’d played our last game. We all sat together in silence for a couple hours.”
Wisconsin went 121-64 overall, 37-28 in Big Ten play and made the NCAA Tournament three times over Rudnicki’s four seasons with the team. The Badgers went 43-14 last year and pushed top-ranked Oklahoma to the brink of elimination in last year’s Norman Regional, losing 2-0 in a game that sent the Sooners to the Super Regionals.
“Being a Division I athlete, you learn a lot about struggles and battling highs and lows,” Rudnicki said. “Our teams had huge wins and heartbreaking losses. Focusing on our team and not who’s on the other side was really important.”
Rudnicki was a four-year letterwinner and starter at shortstop for Verona. She was named third team all-state as a sophomore and first-team all-state as a senior, as well as a two-time first team all-Big Eight Conference honoree.
Speed was Rudnicki’s best asset for the Badgers. She played in 144 games (20 starts) primarily as a pinch runner and outfielder, hitting .149 (7-for-47) with 22 stolen bases, 35 putouts and a .975 fielding percentage.
“I switched roles into more of a pinch runner and defensive specialist,” she said. “I was pretty successful at the plate and my defense was solid in high school, but I focused on my outfielder skills in college. We already had home run hitters, so being a slap hitter didn’t play as big a part as it did in high school.”
Rudnicki was also a 2018 and 2019 Academic All-Big Ten honoree.
The NCAA’s decision to cancel spring seasons and championships came three days before UW-Whitewater’s softball season began.
“We were sort of in denial about it,” Neitzel said. “We were about to start the season and go to Florida for our spring trip, but started to notice other teams canceling their seasons. We thought it would be OK if part of our season got canceled, but it didn’t really hit us until the NCAA’s decision.
“The first few weeks after were really tough on us. It all happened so fast, and that was the most heartbreaking part about it.”
Neitzel hit .225 with 14 doubles, two home runs, 35 RBIs and 44 runs over her first three seasons for the Warhawks. Her versatility has allowed her to play in 116 games thus far.
Neitzel was a catcher and fill-in infielder as a freshman. She caught and played first base primarily last year, but also played a couple games at third base. She was slated to fill a void as the starting second baseman in 2020.
Neitzel has 652 putouts, 44 assists, a .987 fielding percentage and just nine errors in her Whitewater career. She attributed those numbers to fundamentals she learned in the Verona Area Girls Softball Association.
“I grew up knowing defense would get me on the field and keep me there,” said Neitzel, a four-time all-Big Eight selection for the Wildcats. “I’ve tried to be versatile and show my coaches that they can trust me wherever I’m put.”
Whitewater has won the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference regular-season title the last three seasons and gone to the NCAA Division II Regionals each year. The Warhawks went 94-36-1 overall and 37-5 in WIAC play over that same span.
“A lot of it comes down to the coaches doing a good job recruiting,” Neitzel said. “We get a lot of kids from Chicago and its suburbs in addition to kids from Wisconsin. Our coaches also do a great job of mental toughness training and creating a program that makes kids want to come back and play. They treat everyone respectfully and bring out the best in us.”
Neitzel already has her undergraduate degree of accounting and information technology from UWW and is pursuing a Master of Business Analytics degree. She was an Easton/NFCA Scholar-Athlete honoree and member of the WIAC Scholastic Honor Roll in each of her first three seasons.