Michigan softball players gather in a circle, listening to their teammate.
The Michigan softball team will battle Minnesota for favorable postseason positions this weekend. Anna Fuder/Daily. Buy this photo.

The past 13 seasons, one of two teams has won every single Big Ten regular season softball championship: Michigan or Minnesota.

But this year — for the first time since 2007 — that won’t be the case. That doesn’t mean there’s any less to play for.

Both the 23rd-ranked Wolverines and the Golden Gophers are in the midst of down seasons, opening the door for a new contender to take the conference crown. 

With this weekend’s upcoming series between Michigan and Minnesota, that much is clear. What was expected to be a series that could decide the conference race has turned into a matchup between two middle-of-the-pack teams vying to finish above .500 in conference play.

Even so, there is still plenty on the line. The Wolverines currently sit 2.5 games behind Maryland for one of the coveted top four places in the Big Ten standings. Should Michigan move up into that slot, it would earn a first-round bye in the conference tournament. Meanwhile, the Golden Gophers sit barely on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble as of now and are fighting for one of the last few at-large bids. 

Once again, the Wolverines are the favorite on paper to win the series. If they can maintain the offensive prowess and grittiness that they showed in the last two games of their series versus Ohio State, they’ll walk away with another series victory and potentially even their first weekend sweep of the Big Ten campaign. 

But despite how often they’ve stumbled this season, the Golden Gophers won’t make it easy. 

In the non-conference portion of its schedule, Minnesota showed flashes of the team that was expected to contend for a Big Ten title. The Golden Gophers boast wins over No. 14 Arizona State and No. 21 UCF, and a tie against No. 17 Texas. They also defeated fellow bubble team California, and dropped tight one-run losses to No. 6 Oklahoma State and No. 15 Georgia. 

And they have pieces that will give Michigan plenty of trouble. Minnesota’s batting order is headlined by 2021 All Big-Ten outfielder Natalie DenHartog, who is fourth in the conference with 15 home runs this season. Utility player Chloe Evans has contributed 9 deep balls of her own and sports a .344 batting average. 

But the Golden Gophers are below .500 in Big Ten play for a reason. Minnesota’s pitching has struggled greatly this year, as right-hander Autumn Pease carries the lowest ERA on the team at a poor 4.30 clip. At the plate, only three consistent starters are batting above .300. 

These gaping flaws are why the Golden Gophers have sputtered to a 6-9 record in conference play. Coming off another series loss to Maryland at home, things appear to be spiraling even further downward for Minnesota. 

Meanwhile, Michigan appears to be trending in the right direction after its rivalry series win over the Buckeyes. 

The Wolverines’ offense is scarier right now than it has been all season. Senior outfielder Lexie Blair is back from injury, fifth-year third baseman Taylor Bump is slugging her way up to the lofty preseason expectations set for her, and the lineup is beginning to gel with contributions all the way through the order. And on its best day, Michigan has three pitchers who can shut down opposing offenses. 

The stage is set for a series that the Wolverines should probably win. They’re the better team statistically and they get the chance to face an opponent who has not played well as of late. 

Trying to sneak into a top-four conference finish and heading to Wisconsin for a tough final series, Michigan needs to capitalize.