BLOOMINGTON — Though Minnesota is just the No. 3 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, it brings the greatest challenge the top-seeded Michigan softball team has faced since the weekend the Wolverines defeated then-No. 2 UCLA and then-No. 5 Washington in the beginning of March.
Saturday afternoon’s game marks the first meeting between these two teams since the 2016 Big Ten Tournament final when the Golden Gophers upset the then-No. 1 seeded Wolverines, 4-3, in extra innings.
But this Minnesota team might be the best team in the conference right now. Ranked No. 12 in the nation and No. 8 in terms of RPI, the Golden Gophers look slightly better on paper compared to Michigan, who is ranked No. 21 and No. 16, respectively.
The first name that comes to mind when looking at Minnesota is Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Amber Fiser. The right-hander leads the team with a 1.27 earned-run-average and .166 opposing-batting average. Fiser also threw a no-hitter against Illinois, the Big Ten’s best offensive team, while dealing the program’s sixth-ever perfect game on Apr. 27 versus Purdue.
Fiser isn’t a one-player attack on the Golden Gophers’ pitching staff, though, which is also the best in the conference. Right-hander Sydney Smith is likely to see playing time too — she boasts an opposing-batting average of .222 as well as a 2.46 ERA.
Minnesota may not be as consistent offensively as the Wolverines with a team-batting average under .300, but when the team’s bats start to connect, extra-base hits and home runs are inevitable. The Golden Gophers lead the Big Ten in both home runs, 65, as well as slugging percentage, .521.
Leading the Golden Gophers offense is the potent trio of second baseman MaKenna Partain, designated player Natalie Denhartog, and first baseman Hope Brandner. Partain currently hits at a .409 clip which qualifies for fourth in the Big Ten and provides her team with stellar baserunning — she has 13 stolen bases on the year.
The pairing of Denhartog and Brandner bring the bulk of the power to the Minnesota lineup as each have hit 16 homers, which is tied for second in the conference. Though Denhartog hasn’t started every game for the Golden Gophers, she still leads the Big Ten in RBIs with 59 while Brandner is third with 53. Reigning Big Ten Tournament Most Valuable Player Maddie Houlihan also provides consistency at the top of the lineup — the right fielder entered Saturday with a .310 batting average in the No. 2 spot.
However, the Golden Gophers’ bottom half of the lineup struggles to produce any sort of rhythm as the rest of the starters bat below a .250 mark. Michigan will need to exploit these last five spots of Minnesota’s batting order if it hopes to succeed in defeating its tournament woes.
Most of all, the Golden Gophers know what it takes to win this tournament. Having won the Big Ten Tournament three years in a row, many of the players have been on a tournament-winning team unlike Michigan, whose last Big Ten Tournament title was in 2015 when none of its current players had joined the program.
The Wolverines are more than capable of overcoming their final hurdle in a tournament that would most likely decide whether they get to host an NCAA regional matchup. Not only does Michigan have 2018 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Meghan Beaubien, who was flaming hot against No. 9 seed Illinois and No. 5 seed Wisconsin, but the Wolverines have found another ace in freshman right-hander Alex Storako. Michigan also possesses six batters in the starting lineup who are hitting above .300 — a consistency that could wear down Fiser who started against No. 2 seed Northwestern in the second semifinal game on Saturday.
Regardless of the champion, Minnesota and Michigan will have combined for the last six conference tournament titles which speaks to the dominance of both programs. And just like the 2016 extra-inning thriller, Saturday afternoon shouldn’t be any different.