The beginning of Big Ten play ushered in a series of milestones for the No. 23 Michigan softball team.
And not the good kind.
When Nebraska swept the Wolverines at Alumni Field last week, it marked the first time the team had lost three straight at home since the last millennium. And an 0-4 start to Big Ten play? It’s been even longer.
Michigan coach Carol Hutchins knows all this — after all, she’s been around the block a few times.
“We’re 1-4 in the Big Ten,” Hutchins said after a weekend series at Northwestern where the Wolverines went 1-2. “If we don’t fight, it’s not acceptable.”
Yes, Michigan was able to pick up a win against the Wildcats in a somewhat convincing fashion on Sunday, avoiding a sweep. But that doesn’t overshadow the two games that preceded it. Those games followed a pattern: both times, the Wolverines’ offense came out with energy and hit their way into an early lead.
After that, though? Nothing.
Both times, Northwestern came roaring back, taking the games in close fashion. And it felt completely inevitable, like there was nothing that Michigan could do to stop it. At different points, the Wolverines have looked lost, unconfident and unconvincing — only for a brief stints at the Duke Invitational and John Cropp Classic have they looked like an elite team for more than one game at a time.
And in Big Ten play, where Michigan has played against two complete and hungry softball teams, those issues have come to a head.
“We need to play better, we need to pitch better, we need to hit better, we need to field better,” Hutchins said after the Nebraska losses. “I think our kids are just too caught up in something that they need to get out of their head.”
Whatever is in their heads has caused the Wolverines to fall well short of sky-high preseason expectations, when they were arguable Big Ten favorites.
Michigan returned two of its three biggest producers at the plate in senior outfielder Lexie Blair and senior third baseman Taylor Bump; it also returned both pieces of its one-two punch in the circle. These players came back with one goal which has eluded them during their careers in Ann Arbor — getting past regionals.
Right now, the Wolverines have done little to convince anyone that they can achieve that.
As important as the early season tournaments are for RPI and learning what a team is about, Big Ten play is the most important barometer for the Wolverines. a three-game series against one opponent can test how a team adapts day-to-day, and eliminates any argument about an unexpected loss being due to an ‘off game.’ In Michigan’s first taste of the grind of Big Ten play, it has faltered in a major way.
After 31 games of softball, you can begin to understand exactly what a team is about. The leeway of preseason tournaments and early slipups give way to trends, and eventually to a resigned truth:
This team is not where it needs to be.
The season is by no means over, but there needs to be a ‘180’ in mindset and approach if the Wolverines want to achieve their goals. Otherwise, escaping the first weekend is all but out of the question.