Michigan currently sits atop the Big Ten.
With a 21-4 record, the 20th-ranked Wolverines have the highest winning percentage in their conference despite having an equal number of wins as third-place Northwestern.
The teams Michigan has played thus far have gone a combined 114-130 this season, just a .467 win percentage. And the highest ranked team in the Big Ten that the Wolverines have played — Illinois — swept them in the opening weekend of the year.
Put simply, Michigan hasn’t been tested. At least not lately.
On the surface, it appears that the Wolverines are currently on the right track. Their hitting has improved; individuals like junior outfielder Lexie Blair and senior third baseman Taylor Bump have had strong contributions on the offensive side of the ball — not to mention senior first baseman Lou Allan and sophomore utility player Lauren Esman — and senior left-hander Meghan Beaubien and junior right-hander Alex Storako have been lights out in the circle.
It really seems like a team that has it all together. And that’s before you factor in that Michigan is the perennial favorite to win the Big Ten, so what could stop them?
To start, Wildcats left-hander Danielle Williams is a threat on the rubber.
The Northwestern ace threw a perfect game last Friday against Iowa, tallying six strikeouts. Williams followed up her stellar performance the next day, pitching seven-and-two-thirds innings across two games while conceding just six hits and zero earned runs.
“In true Danielle Williams fashion, she just does whatever the team needs her to do,” Northwestern coach Kate Drohan said to reporters covering the Wildcats. “Each weekend, she’s gotten tougher and tougher.”
The Wolverines haven’t faced a threat like Williams since Illinois’ Sydney Sickels back in February, a game that Michigan lost 2-1.
But unlike the Illini, Northwestern’s strong presence on the rubber extends beyond a single pitcher. With the least runs and hits allowed by any pitcher in the Big Ten, Morgan Newport is poised to enter the game and compete for the Wildcats.
Plus, Newport is a two-sided threat. When not in at pitcher, Newport sits in as a designated player to deliver monster hits for Northwestern’s high-octane offensive attack.
“We’re facing a very tough opponent and a very good offensive team,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “And they’re very good at making adjustments.”
The Wildcats hold the second-highest batting average in the Big Ten, behind Michigan, but have 19 more hits than the Wolverines and 168 runs to Michigan’s 109. In terms of average runs per game, Northwestern sits at 6, while the Wolverines average just 4.36.
This is in part due to sluggers Rachel Lewis and Skyler Shellmyer. At .378 and .375, respectively, Lewis and Shellmyer hold the third- and fourth-highest batting averages in the Big Ten. Lewis also finds herself sitting at third in the conference in slugging percentage, second in on-base percentage, first in runs scored and second in stolen bases.
But the lineup goes even beyond Newport, Lewis, and Shellmyer. The Wildcats have threats at every slot in their order and not one place for Beaubien or Storako to relax.
Still, the Wolverines’ duo stand as the premier combo in the conference, with Storako holding the nation’s best ERA (0.41) and number of strikeouts per seven innings (13) among starting pitchers. Additionally, Beaubien has put up a 1.11 ERA with 122 strikeouts thus far.
But Storako and Beaubien are pretty much all Michigan has. Other pitchers have accounted for just four-and-a-third of the staff’s 172-and-two-thirds innings pitched. And though senior right-hander Sarah Schaeffer has done well in her four innings pitched, Hutchins and the coaching staff have proven they don’t trust her in high-pressure situations, only putting Schaeffer in with a sizable lead.
If Northwestern’s savvy offensive attack gets the better of either Storako or Beaubien, Michigan is all but finished. With four games on the weekend, that’s going to be difficult, requiring a lot of responsiveness and reaction by the pitchers in order to get through the gauntlet.
“We’ve made adjustments by the time we get to games three and four,” Hutchins said. “ … Once they see a pitcher through the order a few times, everybody makes adjustments and the question is what kind do we make.”
So when the dust settles on Sunday afternoon, four games will have been played between the two teams, and only then will we know how good the Michigan softball team actually is.
“We will do what we have to do,” Hutchins said. “We play to win.”