Daniel Dash, Lily Friedman, Lane Kizziah and Akul Vijayvargiya contributed to this story.
When the No. 25 Michigan softball team takes the diamond at Alumni Field this weekend, the Wolverines will aim to iron out recurring issues while their conference slate quickly approaches.
Despite trotting out a lineup featuring seven returning starters from last season’s Big Ten regular-season title team — the program’s 10th in the last 11 years — Michigan enters its first homestand ranked behind a trio of Big Ten foes. A month into the season, No. 19 Indiana, No. 21 Minnesota and No. 23 Wisconsin are all slotted above the Wolverines in the latest NFCA Coaches Poll, confirming their legitimacy as threats to Michigan’s historic run.
After crawling out of the gates to a 6-6 start a season ago, the Wolverines found their footing with 17 consecutive victories. The team’s record has hovered around .500 in this season’s early goings, too, so home-field advantage may be the key to sparking a similar hot streak within conference play.
The Daily breaks down the Big Ten contenders who have their eyes set on dethroning the Wolverines this spring.
No. 21 Minnesota (15-7)
A year after finishing as the regular season conference runner-up, Minnesota enters Big Ten play with a slug-first mindset. Led by freshman infielder Natalie DenHartog’s seven long balls, the Golden Gophers rank second in the Big Ten with 25 home runs, while their slugging percentage of .497 is good for third in the conference.
Though Minnesota’s team on-base percentage of .370 suggests it has done a good job of putting runners on base, one glaring hole in the team’s game has been a lack of speed. The Golden Gophers have stolen just 17 bases, the second-lowest mark in the conference.
When Minnesota swings for the fences, it has gone through stretches of frequent misses, often sending batters back to the bench without putting the ball in play. The Golden Gophers lead the Big Ten with 134 strikeouts, an alarming average of over six per game.
Nonetheless, Minnesota’s offense is among the conference’s most potent. Junior infielder MaKenna Partain’s .394 batting average is third amongst players with at least 68 at-bats, and sophomore infielder Hope Brandner’s is tied for third with 26 RBI.
In the circle, junior right-hander Amber Fisher has established herself as the team’s clear ace for the second straight season following the graduation of Sara Groenewegen, who recorded a 0.63 ERA across 211.2 innings as a senior. After posting a 1.69 mark a season ago, Fisher’s ERA has improved to 1.52 this season — the ninth-best in the conference.
Judging by their early-season success, the Golden Gophers appear to be one of the most formidable Big Ten threats.
No. 19 Indiana (22-4)
Coming off an impressive start to the season, No. 19 Indiana is the highest-ranked Big Ten team in the NFCA Coaches Poll. Though the Hoosiers have faced an easier schedule than Michigan — with only two games against ranked opponents compared to Wolverines’ eight — wins against No. 6 Georgia and No. 10 Louisiana State attest to Indiana’s strength this season.
Led by senior right-hander Taylor Trainer, who has posted a 0.83 ERA so far this season, and junior right-hander Emily Goodin, who tosses a 0.99, Indiana has proven its dominance defensively. Despite holding a .264 batting average, the conference’s fourth-worst, the Hoosiers boast the lowest ERA in the conference with a figure of 1.36.
But the Hoosiers weren’t as successful last year. Indiana held a 17-6 Big Ten record last season, good for third in the conference. But their sub-.500 overall record on the season showed major weaknesses against the rest of the country.
From struggles last year to its lackluster non-conference schedule, the Hoosiers are a question mark going into Big Ten play. Still, the Hoosiers’ performance this season has been nothing short of eye-catching. Finishing the first three weekends undefeated with multiple ranked wins, Indiana locked in its position as a team to watch in conference games.
No. 23 Wisconsin (21-3)
Currently ranked No. 23 — two slots above Michigan — Wisconsin may provide an even match to the Wolverines.
While, at first glance, the Badgers’ 21 wins look impressive, that may be misleading. Wisconsin has only faced three ranked teams so far this season: North Carolina State, Texas and Arizona State.
Wisconsin’s offensive performance has been one of the strongest in the conference, as the Badgers have posted a .303 batting average so far, the second-highest in the conference. Junior catcher Kayla Konwent has been a particular standout with 31 hits, 26 RBI and seven home runs this season — currently the second-highest in the Big Ten in all three categories. After missing last season with an undisclosed injury, Konwent has improved immensely, doubling her 2017 batting average from .242 to .485.
With this power at the plate, it’s no surprise Wisconsin has ended almost 10 games in a run-rule mercy.
On the defensive side, the Badgers are anchored by a formidable pitching staff. Freshman right-hander Maddie Schwartz boasts an ERA of 1.18, followed by junior right-hander Kaitlyn Menz and sophomore right-hander Haley Hestekin with ERAs of 1.30 and 1.68, respectively.
While their performance thus far has been impressive, Wisconsin projects to stack up well against the competition it will encounter in the Big Ten.
A conference powerhouse in the 2000s, Northwestern is looking for its first Big Ten championship since 2008 and first NCAA tournament appearance since 2015.
Though fairly inexperienced, the team is off to its best start since 2014 and looks poised to be a contender in the Big Ten race. With freshman catcher Jordyn Rudd at the heart of the order, the Wildcats’ offense has undergone a makeover since last season. With a team-high 25 RBI and a slugging percentage of .536, Rudd already has a Big Ten Player of the Week award under her belt. In addition to Rudd, fellow freshman standout infielder Nikki Cuchran leads the team with a .353 batting average and 24 hits.
Another player to watch in conference play is freshman pitcher Danielle Williams, who leads the team on the mound with an ERA of 1.34 and multiple complete-game shutouts. Williams earned the Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor for her performance at the Stanford Invitational and will look for similar success when the Wildcats begin conference play next week.
Despite inexperience, the strong performance of Northwestern’s newcomers put it in position to be a dark horse in the Big Ten this season and gives the program the building blocks for long term success.