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In recent years, Big Ten softball has been a two-horse race between Minnesota and Michigan. The Gophers and the Wolverines have been unbeatable, and since 2013, they have been the only two teams to win a Big Ten title.

This year, Michigan will look to retain the Big Ten crown for a third straight season. However, as the Wolverines return to conference play in the coming weeks, there is a new frontrunner to unseat them alongside numerous teams clamoring to pull off an upset come May.  

The prime contender

If this year is finally the season that a third party once again wins the Big Ten, it will most likely be No. 10 Northwestern. At this point in the season, the Wildcats have looked impeccable. The early-season southern tournaments have given them the chance to face off against the nation’s best, and Northwestern has made the most of it, boasting significant victories over No. 3 UCLA, No. 5 Washington, No. 9 Oregon and No. 15 Clemson. 

The Wildcats have depth throughout the lineup, but what sets them apart from the competition is their pitching. Coming into the season, it was apparent that Northwestern’s ace would be left-hander Danielle Williams, but what was unclear was just how good she’d be. With nine wins, two saves and a 0.96 ERA, Williams has exceeded even the wildest of preseason expectations. 

Alongside Williams, right-hander Lauren Boyd has had a strong start to the season, boasting a 0.78 ERA. Williams generally faces tougher opponents and often subs in to relieve Boyd, but expect the two to be a deadly tandem.

At the plate, Northwestern is just as strong. It returns three first team All-Big Ten batters in outfielder Skyler Shellmyer, catcher Jordyn Rudd and infielder Rachel Lewis. But in an interesting turn of events, the Wildcats strongest hitter has been infielder Nikki Cuchran. 

The four are all batting above .310, but the Wildcats offense still mostly runs through Lewis. Lewis is Northwestern’s only true power hitter and already has five home runs on the season. Moreover, once she’s on base, she puts herself in scoring position  — stealing 30 bases on 32 attempts last season. 

Northwestern’s No. 10 ranking is completely justified, and as of right now, they’re the Big Ten’s team to beat.

Other frontrunners

Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Indiana have all had strong starts to their seasons. But still, none of these teams have really been tested. Between their four schedules, they’ve faced a combined total of three ranked opponents. So while they’ve looked strong so far, it’s hard to say much about how good they are.

At 9-3, Ohio State is a team defined by consistency, not by standouts. All of its starting batters have averages between .225 and .333, and all of its starting pitchers have ERAs between 1.64 and 2.21. Consistency can take a team far, and it will likely place the Buckeyes in the upper echelon of the Big Ten. Whether or not they can threaten to dethrone the Wolverines remains to be seen.

Iowa and Indiana also had strong starts against weak competition. The Hawkeyes and Hoosiers are 11-5 and 9-4, respectively. Both are, in many ways, polar opposites of Ohio State — they’re inconsistent but show flashes of greatness. 

Both team’s strengths lie at the plate. Indiana has seven batters hitting above .310 while Iowa has four, and both teams feature a star. The Hawkeyes’ best hitter is outfielder Nia Carter, who has been explosive with a .474 average. The Hoosiers meanwhile are led by utility player Cora Basset, who boasts the second highest OPS in the Big Ten. However, Iowa struggles with power and Indiana’s pitching is still a question mark. 

Both teams look like they could be contenders, but need to prove themselves against real competition.

At first glance, Nebraska appears to be the best team in the Big Ten. The Cornhuskers lead the conference in batting average, runs scored, home runs and slugging percentage — and it isn’t close. 

But these numbers are inflated by weak competition, and Nebraska’s hitting has translated only to an 11-6 record with mediocre pitching. The Cornhuskers clearly have bats capable of doing damage, but it’s unclear how they’ll perform against tougher competition. Nebraska should be in the upper half of the conference, and if the pitching falls into place, it could be dangerous.

It would be remiss to talk about Big Ten softball without mentioning Minnesota as a frontrunner. However, with an 11-6 record and only one ranked victory over No. 21 Arizona State, the Golden Gophers have looked relatively average by recent standards.

This mostly comes down to Minnesota having lost several standouts in the offseason, but the team still has the tools to do damage. At the plate, the Golden Gophers have one of the nation’s best power hitters in outfielder Natalie DenHartog. DenHartog has come out of the gate flying with a .382 average and eight home runs. The hitting is there for Minnesota, but what is holding it back is inconsistent pitching. 

If their pitching improves even just slightly, the Golden Gophers will be deadly. As of right now, they sit behind Northwestern and Michigan, but within striking distance.

The Field

No teams look down and out in the Big Ten this year, but through the first month of the season, Michigan State, Illinois, Rutgers, Penn State, Maryland and Wisconsin don’t look like anything to write home about. These teams have either done fine against weak competition or faltered against stronger opponents, and will likely make up the middle and rear of the Big Ten standings.

Michigan has a path to another Big Ten title, but it won’t be easy. Northwestern, Minnesota and other contenders will make sure of that.