A battle between the top two teams in the Big Ten conference ensued over the weekend, with No. 23 Minnesota (26-10 Big Ten) playing host to the No. 19 Michigan softball team (32-6) in a four-game series.
With the Golden Gophers only four games behind the top spot entering the series, the stakes were high, but the Wolverines prevailed. They clinched the Big Ten regular season championship by winning the first three games of the series, before dropping the finale on Sunday.
“I think (winning the Big Ten championship) is a great accomplishment by this group,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “It’s a great accomplishment in a season that was difficult.”
Senior first baseman Lou Allan opened the series with a bang on Friday night. She clobbered an inside pitch from Minnesota’s Amber Fiser in the top of the first inning, redirecting it high over the left-centerfield fence for a solo home run to give Michigan a lead it would not relinquish, going on to win 3-0.
“As soon as she hit that we were like, ‘man this is going to be a great start to everything,’” sophomore second baseman Julia Jimenez said. “We just wanted to attack right after that … so it gave us a good start.”
Despite the early miscue, Fiser held her own throughout the tilt. She allowed only four hits in the complete game performance, but each mistake she made proved costly. With the combined performance of the Wolverines’ co-aces, who pitched a 14 strikeout shutout, the three runs were more than enough.
Senior left-hander Meghan Beaubien, who saw action in each game of the series, started the game and commanded the circle early. After allowing a leadoff single in the bottom of the sixth, junior right-hander Alex Storako came in for relief. She struck out all six batters faced, securing the opening game victory for Michigan.
The series shifted to a double header on Saturday, where the Wolverines took care of business, winning the first game 10-4, and the second 3-1.
A two run home run to right field by Jimenez put the Wolverines up 3-0 in the top of the third inning in the day’s opening game, and a two RBI single up the middle by Allan gave Michigan a sizable 5-0 advantage in the fourth.
In the top of the sixth, freshman catcher Keke Tholl recorded the first RBIs of her career, pinch hitting with the bases loaded, and dropping a single into right field to score two.
The Wolverines led 10-0 when Minnesota responded offensively in the bottom of the sixth. Storako — who posted nine strikeouts in her five innings— and senior right-hander Sarah Schaefer saw four runs (two earned) come across in the frame, leaving Beaubien to close the door in the seventh.
Saturday’s second game was a pitcher’s duel between Beaubien and the Golden Gophers’ stud right-hander Autumn Pease.
Although Minnesota struck first, jumping to a 1-0 lead in the second inning, Beaubien went the rest of the game unscathed. The Michigan offense slowly got to Pease, and a sacrifice fly from Blair in the sixth proved to be the winning run in the conference title clinching affair.
The Wolverines, though, were unable to carry their momentum into the series closer on Sunday. They fell 7-3 in a wire-to-wire defeat — losing their 11-game win streak in the process.
After an Allan double put Michigan up 1-0 in the top of the first, Minnesota took control, handing Storako her worst outing of the season. After allowing four total home runs all season prior to the game, the Gophers blasted three home runs off the right-hander in the first two innings to go up 4-1.
Storako then hit Natalie Denhartog with the first pitch of the top of the third, and walked Katelyn Kemmetmueller the very next at-bat, ending her uninspiring day. She went two plus innings, allowing five earned runs in her third loss of the season. By the game’s end, Minnesota would end up plating seven runs, and the Wolverines were unable to rally.
Despite the lackluster final game, Michigan managed to win a key road series against the Golden Gophers to secure its third straight conference title.
“The goal is to be able to compete and win against the quality opponents,” Hutchins said. “It’s what we’re trained to do, and we executed it three out of four … so (it feels) pretty good, pretty darn good.”