Just 10 short days ago, the No. 2 Michigan softball team was set to take on then-No. 23 Ohio State in a battle for first place in the Big Ten. With more than bragging rights on the line, the Buckeyes were coming to Ann Arbor with their sights set on a much bigger prize.
Supporters from both sides expected a fierce contest between two of the best teams in the conference, but when the time came for the two to take the field, only one team showed up.
Behind the fervent energy of three sold-out crowds at Alumni Field, the Wolverines swept Ohio State with ease, outscoring the Buckeyes, 18-4. Michigan breezed through the series and took its place atop the conference leaderboard.
Then, this past weekend, the Wolverines faced off against Big Ten bottom-dweller Maryland. And as could be expected, the series didn’t go so well for the Terrapins. Against a Michigan team that, quite frankly, is in the same league literally, but not figuratively, Maryland suffered three run-rule losses by a combined score of 33-1.
Two weekend series with two different sets of expectations. But ultimately, they produced the same result for the Wolverines.
Now, with two weekend series left in the conference season, Michigan faces a repeat scenario.
This weekend, the Wolverines will head to State College to take on Penn State in a pivotal matchup for both teams. The Nittany Lions, as the third-place team in the conference, look to be the final major hurdle for Michigan to overcome on its road to a ninth-straight Big Ten title.
Rebounding from a 9-14 conference record last year, Penn State’s 13 wins are more than it had in the entirety of last season. Staking claim to a 10-3 record in State College, the Nittany Lions will look to capitalize on home-field advantage against the Wolverines.
With the highest team batting average and the most hits in the conference, Penn State boasts a particularly dangerous offense. However, with the lowest team earned-run average and the least hits allowed in the conference, Michigan possesses an equally dangerous pitching staff.
Given the high stakes and the evenly-matched nature of the two teams, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins knows her team has to be prepared for a season-defining series.
“Sometimes you have to find a way to give yourself an edge,” Hutchins said. “Penn State is having a great year, they’re a good team (and) they’re a much improved team. … I guarantee they’re going to be fired up for us coming into town, so we’re going to need to stay in our moment and stay in our process.”
Then, the following weekend, the Wolverines will host another Big Ten bottom-feeder Rutgers. In all likelihood, the Scarlet Knights will fall victim to a similar fate as the Terrapins. But regardless of the outcome of the Penn State series, Michigan can’t afford to slip up in its final conference series against Rutgers.
The Wolverines have collapsed against inferior foes before. Against Northwestern on March 25 and Nebraska on April 8, Michigan suffered one-run losses in the Friday game of the weekend series. Though the former saw a late offensive rally fall short and the latter saw an offense that disappeared entirely, both games taught the Wolverines the same lesson: every inning matters, no matter the opponent.
That lesson helped Michigan in sweeping Ohio State and Maryland. Now, riding high on a 10-game win streak and sitting pretty atop the conference standings, the Wolverines will need to continue its implementation.
“The only time it matters when you’re No. 1 is after the last game. Period.” Hutchins said. “It doesn’t matter what position we’re in now. I view Penn State and Rutgers the same way I view Northwestern and Nebraska. … They’re in our way, attack them.”
Just like against Ohio State and Maryland, the Wolverines will encounter two weekend series with two different sets of expectations in Penn State and Rutgers.
Since it would be presumptuous to say that Michigan will sweep Penn State and Rutgers, I’ll just leave it at this: history tends to repeat itself.
Ashame can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @betelhem_ashame.