After securing the outright Big Ten title Sunday, the Michigan softball team kicks off the Big Ten Tournament with its first game on Friday. The Wolverines picked up the top seed and earned a first-round bye for the sixth time in the last seven seasons. The Daily’s softball beat breaks down the tournament and gives its predictions.
Daniel Dash, Daily Sports Writer
Michigan’s most valuable tournament asset: With six players batting over .300 and two over .400, the Wolverines’ depth and consistency separates them from the rest of the pack.
Michigan’s biggest tournament weakness: The Wolverines will have to play three games in two days if they advance to the finals, so having just two reliable pitchers — whereas most teams have three or four — could make fatigue an enemy.
Champion prediction: Minnesota
The Golden Gophers may have finished third in the conference’s regular season standings, but don’t let that fool you. Numbers don’t lie — Minnesota is arguably the Big Ten’s most talented team. Four Gophers are batting over .300, headlined by infielder MaKenna Partain’s .417 clip. In the circle, right-hander Amber Fiser boasts a conference-best 1.25 ERA. Minnesota has won this tournament the last three years, so the roster knows what it takes.
Dark horse candidate: Illinois
Despite being the No. 9 seed, the Fighting Illini enter the Big Ten Tournament with the conference’s best offense. Illinois’ league-high .319 team batting average and .520 slugging percentage could spearhead a Cinderella run, but its pitching staff must avoid imploding.
Lily Friedman, Daily Sports Writer
Michigan’s most valuable tournament asset: With five seniors starting in the Wolverine lineup, experience will be the team’s biggest asset going into the tournament. Under players like senior second baseman Faith Canfield and senior catcher Katie Alexander, the entire Michigan lineup has experience with close games and has thrived under the leadership of its seniors in tough innings.
Michigan’s biggest tournament weakness: A big problem for Michigan thus far this season has been inconsistency. While the Wolverines have won some matchups against highly-ranked opponents like then-No. 2 UCLA, the team’s struggles against subpar competition like South Dakota could pose an issue in a one-and-done tournament.
Champion prediction: Minnesota
Watching its third game against Northwestern, Minnesota looked strong, especially defensively. With right-hander Amber Fiser pitching tight like she did against formerly undefeated Northwestern and the rest of the pitching staff combining for its season-ERA of 1.71, Minnesota could play well enough defensively to lock in a tournament win.
Dark horse candidate: Ohio State
Though seeded fourth, Ohio State fell below Michigan, Northwestern and Minnesota in the regular season as far as competing for a Big Ten title. But the Buckeyes are still a strong contender to make a tournament run. Handing the Wolverines their first and only Big Ten loss this season, Ohio State could be in position to get hot in the tournament and make a championship run.
Lane Kizziah, Daily Sports Writer
Michigan’s most valuable tournament asset: Even early in the season when their offense was lacking, the Wolverines could count on their fielding to keep them in most games. Michigan currently leads the Big Ten with the fewest errors and the highest fielding percentage.
Michigan’s biggest tournament weakness: Pitching has frequently posed a problem for the Wolverines. While both freshman right-hander Alex Storako and sophomore left-hander Meghan Beaubien are among the top 10 pitchers in the conference, Storako has struggled to remain consistent in later innings while Beaubien has already pitched 183.2 innings and has seen her own performance fluctuate as the season has progressed.
Champion prediction: Northwestern
Despite having a relatively young team, the second seeded Wildcats boast strong pitchers, including freshman Danielle Williams with an ERA of 1.46. Coupled with dependable fielding, Northwestern’s defense can hold most opponents to just a few runs. The Wildcats’ lack of command at the plate — a combined batting average of .273 — will likely be their biggest weakness.
Dark horse candidate: Wisconsin
The fifth seeded Badgers may be the most well-rounded team. Not only do they possess the best hitter in the conference — Kayla Konwent with a batting average of .479 — they can also hold their own on defense. They have decent fielding statistics and the depth of their pitching staff should not be underestimated. Coming in with wins against Illinois, Indiana, and Nebraska, Wisconsin may have a shot this weekend.
Akul Vijayvargiya, Summer Managing Sports Editor
Michigan’s most valuable tournament asset: With five seniors in the lineup and a conference-high 332 runs scored throughout this season, the Wolverines possess leadership and a batting prowess they haven’t seen since the times of Sierra Romero.
Michigan’s biggest tournament weakness: Though the Wolverines are lucky to have such a reliable No. 2 pitcher in freshman right hander Alex Storako behind sophomore All-American Meghan Beaubien, both might be somewhat gassed by the end of the weekend which could hurt them in the championship game.
Champion prediction: Michigan
Coach Carol Hutchins has this team primed to win in the postseason. Not only will experience and consistency in the batting lineup bode well for the Wolverines, but the team has shown it can win against the likes of Minnesota and Northwestern with victories over No. 2 Washington and No. 3 UCLA. The first round bye will prove to be pivotal for the pitching staff as well since it might give Beaubien and Storako the last bits of energy they need to finish the weekend strong.
Dark horse candidate: Illinois
The Fighting Illini lost to the Wolverines by only one run in two of the three games they played against each other, so don’t count them out if they are to go against the top seed on Friday afternoon. If Illinois is able to clear that hurdle, it has the offensive firepower to spark another win or two on Saturday.