While Michigan seems poised to win the Big Ten yet again, there are plenty of challengers willing to take its place. Alec Cohen/Daily. Buy this photo.

640 days.

That’s how long it had been since Big Ten teams faced off in regular-season battles when they kicked off February’s Florida bubble. The cancellation of the season right before conference matchups meant that the wide-eyed underclassmen of those teams transformed into the current season’s veterans. With around half of this season already completed, some of those players have led No. 23 Michigan, Minnesota and Northwestern to the top of the standings — the same three leaders from 2019.

Michigan (16-4) returns to Alumni Field for the first time this season on Wednesday, hosting Michigan State for one game. Their original four-game slate was postponed due to COVID-19 protocols. It seemed like those delays could have jeopardized more than just one series, but the Wolverines won a four-game series against Ohio State over the weekend to take first place in the Big Ten. Preventing future pauses and coming out of tough situations strong could keep them there.

“They’ve had to just get knocked down and they’ve gotten up every time,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “Our goal is to win this, to come out on the winning end and finish our season and have a bang up year.”

On their way to finishing that season, the Wolverines will run into the Wildcats and Golden Gophers. Meanwhile, Michigan’s two losses to Illinois could come back to haunt them. Even this deep into the season, the standings remain volatile.

The Daily breaks down just who could top those standings and the rest of the Big Ten softball slate. 

Northwestern (18-6)

The Wildcats came out swinging to start the season. They outscored opponents 41-5 in the first Big Ten bubble weekend. Against Wisconsin, Northwestern scored 31 runs in four games, although almost half of those came in a 15-7 explosion to start a doubleheader.

Outfielder Skyler Shellmyer’s .422 batting average leads the Wildcats, but utility Morgan Newport is the real leader on offense. Her .342/.402/.620 batting already seems intimidating, while her team-leading 18 RBI also show that she can turn that hitting into runs. Despite Newport’s general consistency this season, limiting her at the plate neutralizes much of Northwestern’s scoring, something Ohio State and Minnesota did to beat the Wildcats.

On the mound, Danielle Williams keeps opponents from catching up to the blistering offense. It took until Williams’s seventh appearance for her to allow a run. She has the kind of off-speed finesse that can catch even the best batters off guard. 

Despite their early success, Minnesota threatened Northwestern’s chances at winning the conference with a dominant series sweep. How the Wildcats move forward will determine if they can stay in the championship conversation. Right now, the future looks murky.

Minnesota (19-5)

When the first pitches of the season crossed the plate, the Gophers looked unsteady and split all three series of the first bubble. They either couldn’t find offense to complement steady pitching, or the bullpen couldn’t keep the game within reach. The next series, though, Minnesota’s bats turned up the heat. In a nine-game win streak earlier this season, the Gophers scored 52 runs.

That offensive burst has turned into a consistent calling card, in large part due to Minnesota’s abundance of heavy hitting. Utility Natalie DenHartog takes advantage of any mistake opposing pitchers make. She leads the conference with seven home runs but often struggles to put hits together consistently.

When a team manages DenHartog, though, they’re rewarded with the dual threat of utilities Katelyn Kemmetmueller and Emily Hansen. The duo has combined for 32 RBI, nine doubles and seven home runs. Teams have to silence those bats if they want to get a win off the Gophers, something Northwestern couldn’t do.

As a team, Minnesota bats in the lower half of the conference, but despite that deceptive stat, the Gophers still pose a threat throughout the lineup. Their Achilles’ heel might be their bullpen, which lets many teams stay close — if not lead— in many games. That could hurt them later in the season against rally-prone teams like Iowa or Nebraska. Minnesota can’t drop those games if it wants to win a Big Ten title, something that looks increasingly likely as the season progresses.

If Michigan can prevent the Gophers from making contact with the ball, it could neutralize its ability to score. A key part of that will be earning strikeouts, something the Wolverines — namely senior left-hander Meghan Beaubien and junior right-hander Alex Storako — have succeeded in all season.

“(Beaubien and Storako) keep us in every game,” Hutchins said. “We’ve had a chance to win every game we’ve played, and I think they are very structured, I think they’re methodical and they’re very one-pitch focused, and I just want to see them continue it.”

Illinois (15-9)

The Fighting Illini looked ready to challenge the Big Ten’s best earlier this year, sweeping a two-game series over Michigan and holding second place in the conference through the first 12 games. Then Minnesota happened. 

The Illini couldn’t shut down the Gophers’ potent offense and only captured a single win over the four-game series. Now they look to contend just a few games behind, down but far from out. 

Illinois lives and dies by its pitching. Against Michigan, the Illini only allowed one run per game. Rutgers and Penn State only managed one total run in their series. 

Right-hander Sydney Sickels leads the Illinois mound, throwing the second-lowest ERA — 0.86 — in the Big Ten. Sickels doesn’t buckle under pressure, even loading bases to face the bats she wants. However, teams with more than a couple good hitters can run all over the Illini. Minnesota’s offense scored 20 runs on them in three games before Sickels pitched a shutout to close the series.

The bats make it easier on the bullpen by stringing together hits. Second baseman Avrey Steiner bats above .400, while centerfielder Jaelyn Vickery and rightfielder Kailee Powell fall in the .350 to .375 range. The trio carries much of the offense, combining for 50 out of the Illini’s 105 runs this season. If those bats stay loud, Illinois could silently slip back into contention.

Rest of the Field

With four teams vying for a title, it seems the rest of the Big Ten will struggle to differentiate itself. Iowa (14-10) could make a run if it manages to pick up wins against Northwestern, Minnesota and Illinois. But with 12 games decided by a single run, the Hawkeyes lack the timely scoring they will need to beat the conference’s giants.

Nebraska’s (14-10) prolific power hitting could make the Huskers a headache for opponents. Outfielder Tristen Edwards poses a deep threat for opposing pitchers to think about, while infielder Sydney Gray looks like a rising offensive star. Elsewhere, Nebraska struggles to pull ahead — the Huskers rank sixth and eighth in the Big Ten for team batting average and team ERA, respectively.

Penn State (5-18) and Rutgers (5-19) occupy the Big Ten’s basement, but that doesn’t mean other teams should take them lightly. Especially in a close battle for the championship, a loss to either team could derail a championship bid.

Penn State can’t hit the ball consistently, boasting a measly .181 batting average. It would be no surprise if it finishes last in the conference. Out of 24 Nittany Lion hitters, 13 fall under a .200 batting average and no one eclipses .300.

For the Scarlet Knights, it seems like the worst of their season is over — they went 0-7 against Illinois, Northwestern and Minnesota in the bubble. Now Rutgers focuses on making the most of a losing year. Trimming its conference-worst 6.17 ERA might make the season-ending series against Michigan closer than the Wolverines might want.

Bottom Line

Per usual, it looks like Michigan could run away with the Big Ten title this season. However, there are plenty of teams waiting to take its place. The Wolverines will have to beat out Minnesota and Northwestern later this season if they want to win their 12th conference championship in 13 seasons.

The Gophers have trended in the right direction lately, especially after sweeping Northwestern. If they want to win a title, though, they need to pair their heavy hitting with solid small ball. For the Wildcats, they have to put the sweep behind them and take it one game at a time. Illinois can’t be counted out either, but it needs to find consistency in its game.

Even halfway through the season, it’s still anyone’s championship.