When the sun shines down on a clear day in Michigan, it can make 30 degrees feel like 60. And for the Wolverines, it means they can finally practice outside. When a season typically starts in February — and in this pandemic year, early March — those sunny days and spurts of warmth are like gold in a pile of dirt.
Normally, this complicates things. Teams from the north are forced to travel to the Carolinas, Florida and California for early season tournaments, cutting their home games down significantly.
“We usually get to play four home weekends,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “Out of a 14-week season, we should get to play seven home weekends.”
Not to mention that when northern teams like Michigan travel to warmer sites to play, their lack of outside experience has a tendency to trip them up early. But this year things are different. With a Big Ten only schedule, all these inequities should go away, right? After all, almost every Big Ten team is in the north.
Wrong. Rather, new issues have supplanted the old, and it’s most apparent in the scheduling.
To start, the Big Ten’s crammed weekends — six games in the first two and four from then on out — are just as much a product of the weather as they are COVID-19. It started at the beginning of the season when Big Ten coaches were scrambling for a site to play in early March that wasn’t their own rock-hard soil.
“Part of playing our sport in the Big Ten is getting a chance to go to some of the warm weather and play in softball conditions as opposed to snowball conditions,” Hutchins said. “And, really, it was just a fantastic effort by the Big Ten coaches. Very collaborative. Everybody put down their own agendas and said, ‘How can we make this happen,’ and it happened.”
But with limited venues and considerable expenses involved with cross-country travel, the Big Ten had just two weekends to fit as many games as possible. This forced jam-packed six-game slates, an atypical amount for just one weekend in the NCAA.
Still, Michigan and the rest of the Big Ten are left behind when the national picture is taken into account. No. 1 Oklahoma, for example, has played 22 games at this point in the season. The 25th-ranked Wolverines? Just 12. The next lowest amount of games played in the top-25 is No. 2 UCLA with 17, but most are hovering around 20. Michigan, notably, is also the only Big Ten team with a ranking, perhaps due to the scarcity of games.
To catch up, the Wolverines and the Big Ten from here on out are facing a gauntlet where each weekend they play four games against just one team. It may not sound like much more than the typical three, but for players it is grueling.
“Playing a team and trying to beat the same hitters four games in a row … It’s a lot different than a three game once a day series,” senior left-hander Meghan Beaubien said. “When you play four games … we’re going to need to be fit, we’re going to need a lot of endurance.”
Despite the demanding schedule ahead, Michigan won’t be able to catch up in games to a team like Oklahoma. The Wolverines have 44 games on their schedule, and the Sooners have 47. By the time the Women’s College World Series rolls around, Big Ten teams will be more fatigued and have less game experience than their warmer conference opponents.
There is a reason that only one team east of the Mississippi, Florida State, has won the Women’s College World Series since Michigan was the first to do so in 2005. Early-year weather differs greatly across such a vast landscape — and it matters.
“To me, it’s a no brainer,” Hutchins said. “February is not spring. We’re a spring sport and we have to travel, we spend a lot of money and we could even out the whole country and give us all a chance to play more home games (with a different schedule).
“ … The conversation is not over. NCAA softball and baseball should not start a minute before mid-March.”
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