Michigan will be hosting the Big Ten Softball Tournament this upcoming weekend for the 10th time in program history, with the Wolverines coming in as the second seed. Michigan will kick off its weekend Friday afternoon at 4:30 against the winner of Michigan State/Indiana. With the tournament set to begin Thursday, The Daily softball beat writers offer their predictions for tournament champion, Michigan’s tournament fate and a sleeper team to watch in the tournament:

Max Marcovitch:

Champion: Minnesota

They’ve been the best team in the Big Ten all season, and it’s never been particularly close. The Gophers have won 22 in a row, have lost just three times all season and are poised to win the Big Ten tournament for the second year in a row. As a team, they outscored their Big Ten opponents by a margin of 193-29, and are in the top five in the country in both team earned-run average (1.18) and team batting average (.350). Right-hander Sara Groenewegen, with her miniscule 0.60 ERA, is in the conversation with Florida’s right-hander Kelly Barnhill for national pitcher of the year. On the other side of the diamond, a dynamic Gophers offense is led by Kendyl Lindaman, who leads the conference in batting average, slugging percentage and home runs, among other things. They aren’t just the prohibitive favorite to take the Big Ten title in Ann Arbor this weekend, but also one of the strongest challengers to Florida in the national title hunt.

How the Wolverines will fare: lose in finals

With this latest offensive push — scoring 9.7 runs per game in its last nine games — Michigan has clearly separated itself as the second best team in the conference. But it still remains to be seen whether this team can produce against quality competition, and there will perhaps be no greater test than Groenwegen and Minnesota if the Wolverines are able to make the finals. Michigan has two things going for it: Megan Betsa pitching every game and the home field advantage. But, barring something unforseen, neither will be strong enough to topple the Gophers in this tournament. Something else to monitor: Would a loss in the finals be enough to place the Wolverines in the top 16 and host a regional in Ann Arbor the next weekend?

Team to watch: Illinois

Looking for a team to potentially upset Minnesota? How about the only team in the conference that has done it? On April 1, the Fighting Illini upset the Gophers in Urbana, scoring off of Groenewegen in relief to topple Minnesota 4-3. Illinois is a balanced group, with seven hitters who hit over .300 this season and six hitters with 20 RBI or more. They’re led by two seniors — left-fielder Nicole Evans and right-hander Breanna Wonderly — who would like nothing more than to upset the two powers and send shockwaves through the Big Ten in their final seasons.

Benjamin Katz

Champion and How the Wolverines will fare: Michigan wins Big Ten Tournament

The last time Michigan hosted the Big Ten Tournament was 2005 when the No. 1 seed Wolverines easily glided through their opponents to win the championship.

What says that can’t happen again?

This time around — despite appearing as an underdog compared to powerhouse Minnesota — Michigan has all the pieces that can amount to a deep run. The Wolverines are hitting stride at the perfect time with offense and pitching simultaneously performing masterfully for what seems like the first time all season.

Over its current nine game win streak, Michigan has shown countless times why it’s a force to be reckoned, starting with its explosion at the plate. The Wolverines have scored 9.7 runs per contest over the last nine. This resurgence is anchored by senior center fielder Kelly Christner and sophomore second baseman Faith Canfield who are hitting .419 and .392, respectively, this season and lead the team in almost every offensive category.

And don’t forget senior right-hander Megan Betsa. Coming off a career-best season, highlighted by a 1.17 earned-run average and nation’s best 370 strikeouts, opponents post a measly .143 batting average against the ace.

A newly-hot offense combined with potent pitching — and home-field advantage — gives Michigan the best chance to topple No. 1-seeded Minnesota. If the Wolverines are able to continue their recent success when the lights shine brightest this weekend, they’ll come out as Big Ten Tournament champions.

Team to watch: Wisconsin

Despite an underwhelming 11-11 conference record, the No. 6-seed Wisconsin looks to play spoiler to frontrunners Minnesota and Michigan this weekend. Many forget this is the same Badger team that started the season 21-2 to break into the nation’s Top 25. To regain its former dominance, Wisconsin’s fate is likely in the hands of utility player Chloe Miller. The senior leads the team — and ranks second in the Big Ten — with a .423 batting average and .536 on-base percentage, but struggled in conference matchups, hitting just .292. Even with a 3-9 home record, the Badgers handily went 14-3 on the road and 15-2 on neutral fields, important statistics to keep in mind for the upcoming tournament in Ann Arbor. If Miller and her team can connect on all cylinders like they did in February, dark horse Wisconsin may make a convincing run.

Anna Marcus

Champion: Minnesota

Emerging from the regular season as No. 2 in the nation, Minnesota has taken the Big Ten by storm this spring. The Golden Gophers exit conference play possessing a near-perfect 22-1 mark, good for the No. 1-seed in the tournament. Minnesota boasts a multifaceted skillset, holding the top batting average (.350), most runs (405) and lowest team ERA (1.18) in the conference. On top of that, the Gophers have held their past 18 opponents to a stark average of 0.83 runs per game. Minnesota’s right-hander Sara Groenewegen — who recently collected Big Ten Pitcher of the Year accolades — touts a 0.60 ERA, ranking third in the nation in both that category and in wins. The ace is poised to continue her form, and so are the Gophers, who, riding a 22 game win streak, are looking unstoppable for their tournament appearance and beyond. 

How the Wolverines will fare: lose in finals  

No. 17 Michigan finished its season last weekend on a high note, pounding out a season-high 53 hits against Rutgers. Since facing Wisconsin three weeks ago, the Wolverines have looked better than ever, finding a groove at the plate that followed a somewhat extended slump in production. Both Michigan and Minnesota have four players apiece that rank in the top 15 for batting average in the Big Ten. In the circle, senior right-hander Megan Betsa looks to compete with Groenewegen, boasting a nation-high 370 strikeouts on the season. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, experience against prime pitching may be their Achilles heel if they battle Minnesota in a championship match — they haven’t faced hurlers of Groenewegen’s caliber since before conference play. 

Team to watch: Wisconsin

In Wisconsin’s series opener against Minnesota this season, the Badgers kept the Gophers scoreless until the 12th inning. Just a few days later, in its series opener against Michigan, Wisconsin defeated the Wolverines, 1-0. If the Badgers have proved one thing this season, it is that they can hold their own against top-conference competition, particularly in the first meeting. Because of this, the single game, sudden death format of the Big Ten Tournament could be advantageous for Wisconsin. Additionally, the Badgers have star power at the plate with utility player Chloe Miller, whose .432 batting clip is good for second-best in the conference. With plenty of support at the mound as well — with two starting hurlers tossing sub-2.50 ERAs — Wisconsin poses a threat to the big names this weekend.

Mark Calcagno

Champion and how the Wolverines will fare: Michigan wins Big Ten Tournament

The Wolverines outscored Rutgers 45-2 this weekend, silencing previous concerns about an offense that struggled throughout the earlier parts of the season. Blanco and senior third baseman Lindsay Montemarano have improved significantly since Big Ten play started, helping Michigan recently regain its dominant form of last year. The Wolverines will receive strong tests from possible opponents in Ohio State and Minnesota, but home-field advantage will boost Michigan to a tournament championship.

How Michigan coach Carol Hutchins will handle the pitching rotation with potentially three games in less than 48 hours is intriguing, but the presence of senior right-hander Megan Betsa and junior right-hander Tera Blanco will give the Wolverines a solid chance to win in each game. With more confident hitters since the start of the year, Michigan is the biggest threat to upset top-seeded Minnesota.

Team to watch: Ohio State

The Buckeyes lead the Big Ten in home runs, and have a prolific offense that could carry them to a surprising tournament championship. Led by right-handed starters Morgan Ray and Shelby Hersh, the team’s 2.42 ERA displays a balance that makes Ohio State very dangerous.

 

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