If you asked me right now what the ceiling for the Michigan softball team is, I genuinely couldn’t tell you.
Entering the season, you could make a few fairly safe assumptions about the Wolverines based on recent trends. If you said that they would win the Big Ten regular season, place third or better in the Big Ten tournament and nonetheless watch the Women’s College World Series from home a few weeks later, I don’t think anyone would have responded with incredulity.
But months into the season, something feels different about this Michigan team — and not in a good way.
Discounting last year when they played an extra 20 conference games, the Wolverines haven’t lost more than five games in the Big Ten since 1995. And as of right now, with 10 conference games remaining, they’ve already dropped six.
It would seem logical to take this fact and argue that Michigan’s having an off year. That there’s no way it wins the Big Ten. That it will almost undoubtedly not host a regional tournament and that it will fall short of its preseason goal of a Women’s College World Series in June.
Yes, the Wolverines are objectively having a down year. They will not win the Big Ten regular season. And hosting a regional tournament is likely out of the picture.
But that argument alone lacks nuance.
Because Michigan isn’t struggling compared to past results due to a lack of talent. Almost objectively, the Wolverines have a more talented roster than last year’s Big Ten Championship team.
They retained almost their entire lineup, including their senior right-hander Alex Storako and graduate left-hander Meghan Beaubien. They’ve added two incredibly strong batters in graduate outfielder Kristina Burkhardt and graduate second baseman Melina Livingston along with an athletic freshman class that bolstered their defense.
And at points this weekend against Maryland, this was put on display. On Friday, the Wolverines took the second game with a dramatic overtime victory, and on Saturday, Michigan won 9-2 on the strength of 14 hits and a complete game from Beaubien.
But at the same time, in the weekend’s opener the Wolverines showed up stagnant, losing 5-1 in an ugly game in which 10 runners left on base.
Talent isn’t the issue for Michigan, but putting all of the pieces together and getting them to stick is.
This is why sometimes Michigan looks flawless. When Storako and Beaubien are on, and the batters bat even just to their averages, the Wolverines are dangerous. In February, they beat No. 20 UCF and trounced No. 8 Kentucky, 8-0. And just two weeks ago, they won their final game against No. 10 Northwestern by five runs.
Michigan undeniably has raw talent. However, this hasn’t resulted in consistency. The Big Ten is by no means a powerhouse softball conference. For most teams, being 6-6 in Big Ten play is a sign of mediocrity. Nothing more, and nothing less.
But this Michigan team is an enigma.
It has the tools to be dominant, and sometimes looks the part, but there’s no consistency.
This past weekend exemplifies this. The Wolverines come out of the series clearly looking like the better team. But at the same time, they played one ugly game that pushed them further behind Nebraska, the Big Ten’s current leader.
It’s a weird feeling. Michigan won the series. Yet at some fundamental level it still strikes me as a loss. And I leave the weekend more and more confused about who the Wolverines are.
Its has been 33 years since Michigan has gone through four weeks of conference play without sweeping an opponent. But I do not believe that this means the Wolverines’ season will end up being a disappointment.
Because the range of possible outcomes for this team is huge.
If right now you wanted to make an argument that Michigan will struggle to make the NCAA tournament, I’d listen. And conversely, if right now you told me that you fully believed the Wolverines will make the World Series, I wouldn’t call you crazy.
The players are firmly airing on the side of optimism.
“If you don’t believe in Michigan, I don’t know what to tell you,” fifth-year third baseman Taylor Bump said. “We’re gonna come out, and we’re gonna come out on top.”
And maybe they will. But guessing whether they implode in the regional or go on a tear to the World Series feels more like a game of chance than anything else.