The No. 12 Michigan softball team finished the regular season as Big Ten champions and will start the tournament as the No. 1 overall seed in the Big Ten Tournament. Although the Wolverines compiled separate win streaks of 18 games and 15 games, Michigan lost much of that momentum with two blowout losses in their its five games — one to Western Michigan and one to Ohio State. With a championship berth in the Big Ten Tournament though, Michigan can earn a spot in the NCAA tournament and has a chance to stifle foes with an 1.32 team earned run average (ERA). So what does the Big Ten Tournament path look like for Michigan?
As a top four seed, Michigan received a first-round bye and will face the winner of the 8-9 matchup between Nebraska and Michigan State. If Michigan State advances, it would represent a rematch of last year’s quarterfinal, where, despite playing at Alumni Field, the No. 2 seeded Wolverines lost after giving up three runs in the top of the seventh to lose 5-4. Michigan, however, swept both games against the Spartans this year and didn’t give up a single run.
Otherwise, the Wolverines will face the Cornhuskers for the first time this season. Nebraska finished 9-13 in Big Ten Play, but lost eight of its last nine conference games after an 8-5 start. The Cornhuskers are led by sophomore utility player Tristen Edwards who hit .358 this year with 12 home runs and 43 runs batted in, but have five players overall who hit above .300.
If Michigan advances past the quarterfinals, that’s where the Wolverines might run into some trouble, likely facing No. 4 seed Northwestern or No. 5 seed Ohio State. Like with Nebraska, Michigan didn’t play the WIldcats this season. In one aspect, it would be a battle of relative strengths as Northwestern’s speedy base runners would test Michigan’s second-ranked fielding defense. However, Northwestern only has one true ace in freshman right-hander Kenna Wilkey, which could be a problem for the Wildcats if they choose to overuse her in the quarterfinal matchup.
Ohio State, on the other hand, is an all too familiar foe for the Wolverines. While Michigan clinched the Big Ten regular season title at Alumni Field against the Buckeyes, much of the luster of the first two wins in the series was gone after a 10-1 run-rule drubbing at the hands of Ohio State.To avoid a similar fate in the tournament, Michigan will have to limit junior first team All-Big Ten infielder Lilli Piper, who hit .409 this year.
If any team can go toe-to-toe with the Wolverines though, it would be Minnesota. The Golden Gophers finished only one game behind Michigan and have star power on both sides of the ball to repeat as Big Ten champions. Sophomore right hander Amber FIsher was the only pitcher that held a lower conference ERA than Wolverine freshman left hander Meghan Beaubien, and sophomore catcher Kendyl Lindaman comes into the tournament as the two time defending Big Ten Player of the Year, having hit .512 in conference play — the highest mark in the Big Ten in four years.
The only thing that matters in the end for Michigan, though, is which Michigan team will show up. Will it be the one that looked sloppy and couldn’t capitalize with runners in scoring position at the bookends of the season? Or will it be the juggernaut that won 33 of 34 games, sprinkling in no-hitters and home runs like it’s nothing? The Wolverines must take the game one ball and one pitch at a time, to quote Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. As the best batting team, the best pitching team and the team with the best record in the Big Ten, Michigan should be just fine if they do that and not get caught up in the moment.