Every Michigan fan, athlete and coach understands the significance of a matchup against Ohio State and Michigan State. The Wolverines’ rivalries with these two colleges are some of the most storied in collegiate athletics, and winning a road game in Columbus or East Lansing presents a formidable task.
But this is a task the Michigan softball team has been handed to continue its 15-game win streak and a challenge it will have to conquer in its hunt to host a regional site in this year’s NCAA Tournament – something the program hasn’t done since 2016.
And it’s not just a single matchup away from home. First, the Wolverines will head to Columbus for a weekend series before traveling to East Lansing for a Tuesday-night standoff against the Spartans.
Though no more is needed to set the stage for the next four games, these rivalries go past the names of each school.
When Michigan lines up on the diamond against the Buckeyes this Friday, coach Carol Hutchins will be shaking the hand of 1995 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, Michigan great and Ohio State coach Kelly Kovach Schoenly.
“I’m always proud of my (former players) when I see them out on the field,” Hutchins said. “(Schoenly’s) done a really good job at Ohio State and I was watching their game last night seeing her in an Ohio State hat. I’m proud of her, proud of what they do.
“I told (the players), trying to go to Ohio State, it’s a brawl. And I think Ohio State on their field is even tougher. But we really try not to make, people ask who our rival is and all that jazz. To me every game counts the same, whether you’re playing Rutgers or Ohio State or Michigan State or Minnesota. They all count the same.”
Freshman outfielder Lexie Blair, who has yet to play in such an intense rivalry game, recounted how she and sophomore shortstop Natalia Rodriguez pretended to box one another during practice as if they were in a game against the Buckeyes.
“I wanna see that on the field, I wanna see you attack them,” Rodriguez told her.
As for Tuesday’s competition, it is no secret that Michigan State is Hutchins’ alma mater.
“I get to see the plaque of the national championship when we won, and right on their outfield fence is ‘1976 AIAW Champions,’ ” Hutchins said as she pointed to an imaginary banner. “I give all the freshmen a history lesson. But I wanna win there just like I wanna win (against Ohio State) and nothing else changes.”
The history with these two teams and the Wolverines goes beyond Hutchins’ ties. Michigan’s most recent results against the Buckeyes and Spartans were convincing losses – by nine and seven runs, respectively – late in the Big Ten season that ended up dictating the course of the Wolverines’ postseason. And even though this season’s rivalry games are earlier in the year, it doesn’t undermine the importance of proving that the team can win on the road after playing 11 of the last 15 at Alumni Field.
“You don’t wanna get your emotions too involved, whether you’re on the field or in the dugout,” Hutchins said. “You want to play with great heart and great intensity, but the minute you start getting emotional, your emotions are going to get in the way.”
But this is easier said than done. The only way to prove whether the players can understand this?
If their win streak is at 19 come Wednesday morning.