BLOOMINGTON — For the first time since 2016, the No. 1 seed Michigan softball team advanced past the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament. And though Friday’s game against No. 9 seed Illinois proved to be a challenge, Saturday’s semifinal matchup against No. 5 seed Wisconsin won’t be any easier.
After defeating No. 12 seed Iowa, 7-4, in a game that seemed to be closer than what the seedings indicated, the Badgers pummeled No. 4 seed Ohio State on Friday, 10-1, on a six-inning run rule. Six different players notched RBIs for Wisconsin while right-hander Kaitlyn Menz allowed just three hits in a complete game.
Needless to say, the Wolverines are going to have their hands full.
Never having played the Badgers, Michigan will be getting its first look at Wisconsin when they line up against each other Saturday morning. With severe weather looming Saturday evening, the Big Ten decided to move the games three hours earlier than previously scheduled.
But one name the Wolverines are definitely familiar with is Kayla Konwent. The Badgers’ first baseman was awarded Big Ten Player of the Year this past week — she leads the conference with a whopping .477 batting average and a .901 slugging percentage. Konwent also is second in the conference in RBIs (51) and tied for third in home runs (15).
Wisconsin is more than just a one player attack, though. The Badgers have four other players who have launched at least seven home runs on the season, which is two more than Michigan. Catcher Taylor Johnson is having a phenomenal sophomore campaign, batting a .369 clip while adding another dimension of attack for Wisconsin with 15 stolen bases.
It is likely that right-hander Haley Hestekin will get the start in the circle for the Badgers after Menz’ six-inning effort today. Hestekin is having a solid season herself with a 2.46 ERA and opponent batting average of .239.
And if Hestekin starts to run out of gas, Wisconsin will be prepared. Playing the season almost entirely in a relief pitching role, right hander Maddie Schwartz has devastated most of her opponents, earning a 1.65 ERA in only her first year of college softball. On Thursday, she proved that she can play under pressure as well when she held the Hawkeyes to just one run in four innings.
If the Wolverines hope to ride into the Big Ten championship game for the first time since 2016, they will need to continue pitching well, specifically against the top of the batting order. With Konwent and Johnson batting in the first two spots of their lineup, the Badgers have the ability to race off to a quick start like they did in their quarterfinal matchup against the Buckeyes if they’re not contained.
Michigan will also need to put up a much better offensive showing than it did against the Fighting Illini. But it has the arsenal to do so. The Wolverines bring seven players that bat above a .270 clip. On the other hand, Wisconsin only has three players that are achieving such numbers. Exploiting this difference in consistent hitting can prove to be pivotal, especially late in the game when the middle and bottom of the batting orders become more active.
Though Michigan is the highest seed in this tournament, Wolverines’ coach Carol Hutchins knows very well that the Badgers are more the capable of pulling off the upset.
“We’re going to be a little looser tomorrow because Wisconsin is on fire,” Hutchins said. “They play loose, free, aggressive. … I think they’re hot, they’re a good team.
“We gotta get past Wisconsin and that’s going to be no small feat.”