The No. 2 Michigan softball team entered its conference schedule with just two losses: against No. 1 Florida and then-No. 9 Washington.
After garnering eight straight Big Ten Championships, the Wolverines rarely encounter a conference foe they cannot beat. And this year, Michigan’s Big Ten schedule consists of three of the bottom five teams in last season’s standings. It does not face No. 14 Minnesota, the other team that consistently challenges the Wolverines’ spot at the top.
Instead, Michigan’s conference schedule consists of only one ranked team: No. 23 Ohio State. And the Wolverines took advantage of this rare opportunity to compete with a top conference team and swept the Buckeyes (9-4-1 Big Ten, 25-11-1 overall), while showing a strong effort from top to bottom.
The Wolverines’ cruised in their first two games, outscoring Ohio State, 13-1, including a run-rule 8-0 victory on Friday. Sunday, though, provided some suspense, with the Buckeyes taking a 3-2 lead in the fifth inning before Michigan came back to win, 5-3.
“Occasionally we have more of a sense of urgency when we go down,” said junior third baseman Lindsay Montemarano. “It’s like, ‘Oh shoot, we really gotta get going,’ and we focus in a little bit better.”
Though Michigan’s hitting gives it most of its victories, its pitching was crucial over the weekend. Before allowing three runs in Sunday’s game, junior right-hander Megan Betsa pitched 21 scoreless innings, including two shutouts.
“Megan was tough,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “She was tough because she didn’t allow herself to go in any direction but stay focused on her moment. You can’t control what they do. I thought she was fantastic. She should be proud of how hard she worked.”
Betsa faced Ohio State right fielder Alex Bayne seven times in her two starts. Bayne leads the nation in home runs with 18 and ranks in the top 20 in RBI with 44. But in seven appearances against Betsa, Bayne failed to get a hit and walked twice while striking out five times.
On the offensive side, sophomore catcher Aidan Falk raised her average 29 points to .289 while hitting a home run and driving in four runs. Sophomore first baseman Tera Blanco hit a two-run home run and had five RBI in the series. In one of the few moments this Big Ten season that the Wolverines faced a top pitcher, the team delivered. In 11 innings against Buckeye right-hander Shelby Hursh, the Wolverines scored 11 runs and walked nine times.
“Give (Ohio State) credit — they’re a good team,” Hutchins said. “Hursh pitched fantastic today. She had us. She was in our head.”
Michigan’s remaining games include only one team with a winning record. It played nearly every remaining team on its schedule last season and lost only once, when Iowa beat the Wolverines, 6-4.
Because of the lack of nationally ranked competition in the Big Ten, Michigan looks to make the most of its opportunities in these infrequent matchups with top teams.
This past weekend, it took advantage.