The Michigan softball team came into last season ranked No. 6 in the country, and for just the second time since 2004, it failed to advance past regionals of the NCAA Tournament.

Now, riding a 16-game win streak –– longer than any win streak they had last season –– the seventeenth-ranked Wolverines are the hottest team in the Big Ten, and are playing like a team left with a sour taste in its mouth.

Through the first 12 games of the season, Michigan had a record of 6-6. Perhaps the team needed a period of adjustment after losing a slew of four-year starters.

Now, along with their win streak, the Wolverines hold the conference’s second-best batting average at .306. But what has really made Michigan elite is its rotation. The pitching staff is putting up a Big Ten-best 1.05 earned-run average, allowing just 29 runs in 28 games.

The Wolverines are currently second in the Big Ten in winning percentage, trailing only No. 18 Ohio State. They appear to be on a collision course with the Buckeyes at the beginning of May for a series that could determine the conference crown.

Outside of these two teams, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern and Illinois have all gotten off to solid starts this season. However, Michigan will face none of these teams during the regular season. The question for the Wolverines will be whether they can keep up the consistency that they have been yearning for since before last season.

The Daily breaks down the teams that will contend for the Big Ten Title if Michigan fails to maintain its current level of play.

No. 18 Ohio State (19-4)

Heading into Big Ten play as the only other ranked team, Ohio State is currently the Wolverines’ biggest competitor for the conference title.

The Buckeyes finished third in the conference last season and lost to Minnesota in the Big Ten Championship. So far, they are exceeding preseason expectations as they came into the season unranked. They appear to be locked in on avenging last season’s loss.

Ohio State’s offense ranks fifth in the Big Ten in batting average, and it relies heavily on the long ball. It leads the conference in home runs with 29 while having played just 23 games so far –– the third fewest in the Big Ten.

Standout junior Lilli Piper has spearheaded the offense by staking her claim as the best hitter in the conference. She is currently batting .452 with 12 home runs, 33 RBI and is slugging 1.012 –– leading the Big Ten in each of those categories. The next best hitter, in fact, is actually a pitcher. With senior right-hander Shelby McCombs batting a measly .300 with 5 home runs and 14 RBI compared to Piper’s stellar batting stats, the Buckeyes’ offense begins and ends with Piper.

The lack of depth on offense is compensated by a collective ERA of 2.07 –– good for third in the Big Ten. This is mostly due to the performance of junior right-hander Morgan Ray who has the seventh-best ERA in the conference at 1.49 with a record of 11-3 in 17 appearances. Ray’s play has carried over from last season as she posted a 0.91 ERA in her last 10 appearances in 2017.

McCombs has posted a 2.68 ERA, going 8-1 in 13 appearances.

Ohio State has not played a particularly tough schedule thus far. It has faced off against just two ranked opponents, UCLA and Oklahoma, being shut out by both. That’s not to say that Ohio State has not recorded any quality victories. The Buckeyes defeated Louisville and Wichita State, both of whom have been ranked just outside the top 25 in recent polls, twice this season –– including shutting out each team once in four total matchups.

Their series against Northwestern and Michigan will make or break their hopes for the conference title.

Minnesota (17-11)

Minnesota is coming off one of its best seasons in program history in which it earned the No. 1 ranking for the first time and finished with a 56-6 record. This season has not faired quite as well for the Gophers who have nearly doubled their 2017 loss total.

The team has hit a few bumps along the road under the leadership of first-year head coach, Jamie Trachsel, after Jessica Allister left the Twin Cities for the sunnier roads of Stanford, California to take on the managerial duties at her alma mater.

Minnesota has seen a drop in the performance of several key players from last season on offense.

Last year’s Freshman of the Year and Big Ten Player of the Year, Kendly Lindaman, has not lived up to the behemoth expectations she set with last season’s performance. Her average is down to .301, which pales in comparison to last season’s .426 average. She is still the team’s biggest power threat and leads the team with nine home runs –– the second most in the Big Ten –– and a slugging percentage of .675.

The team’s best hitter has been freshman Ellee Jensen who is batting .370. Despite leading the team in batting average, she has only tallied three extra base hits and three RBI over 28 games.

The biggest disappointment for the Gophers this season, however, has been the drop off in production from junior Maddie Houlihan who went from batting .396 with 50 RBI last season to a paltry .238 with four RBI in all 28 games this season.

Minnesota’s pitching staff boasts a 2.43 ERA which ranks fourth in the conference. Last season, it relied heavily on then-senior right-hander Sara Groenewegen, who went 31-4 with a 0.63 ERA. Sophomore Amber Fiser has started the majority of the games for the Gophers this season and is 11-6 with a 2.06 ERA in 21 appearances. She is looking to build off of last season in which she went 14-0 with a 1.68 ERA.

The team has struggled against quality competition this season, going 2-7 against ranked opponents. However, it showed last season what kind of team it can be when its offense plays up to its potential. Minnesota is a dark horse in the conference if it can come close to replicating last season’s production.

Nebraska (20-9)

Continuity is the name of the game for Nebraska, which returned 10 starters and appears to be making the biggest improvement from last season in which it finished 24-29 –– failing to make a postseason appearance.

This season, the Cornhuskers have recorded wins against Brigham Young and Utah –– both of whom were ranked at the time. Their most impressive victory, however, came against No. 8 Texas A&M. They have had one of the toughest schedules so far in the Big Ten, facing several ranked opponents including No. 1 Washington, No. 3 UCLA and No. 4 Oklahoma. Although they are unranked, they received eight votes in the latest poll.

Senior Kaylan Jablonski is the team’s best hitter and pitcher. She is batting .368 with 17 RBI, and in the circle, has posted a 2.51 ERA with a 13-5 record.

As a team, Nebraska ranks fourth in batting average and populates the bottom half of the conference with a 3.31 ERA.

Northwestern (16-9)

Northwestern –– winners of eight in a row and 11 of their last 13­­­­ –– is entering Big Ten play as the second hottest team in the conference.

The team’s most impressive victory of the season came against No. 15 Alabama on March 4, which kick-started the team’s current win streak.  

Freshman standout Rachel Lewis is the main source of offensive production for the Wildcats, batting .329 with 6 HR and 29 RBI. Senior leadoff hitter Sabrina Rabin is contributing to the third-ranked offense with a .366 batting average and 24 runs scored.

Northwestern’s pitching staff is posting a 3.04 ERA, which ranks seventh in the Big Ten. Sophomore Morgan Newport and freshman Kenna Wilkey have spearheaded the effort, by posting ERAs of 2.25 and 2.88, respectively.

If the Wildcats can maintain their recent play, they can contend in the Big Ten.

Illinois (16-9)

Illinois got off to a slow start this season, going 3-6 over its first nine games. Since then, it has gone 13-3.

The Fighting Illini boast the top offense in the Big Ten, due largely to the play of junior Kiana Sherlund, who is batting .426 –– second best in the conference –– with 20 RBI. Redshirt junior Carly Thomas is another key contributor to the offense, batting .329 with 17 RBI. Overall, there are seven hitters on the team batting over .300 –– tops in the conference.

The majority of the starts in the circle have gone to junior right-hander Emily Oestriech who has posted a record of 9-3 with a 3.45 ERA. Illinois’ pitching staff is posting a collective ERA of 3.79, which ranks fourth from the bottom in the Big Ten.

If the pitching can become more consistent, the offense has shown that it can keep the Fighting Illini competitive.

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