The Michigan softball dominance over the Big Ten is akin to that of the Romans over the Mediterranean under Augustus: It is long-lasting and filled with triumph. For 30 years, the Wolverines have dominated the Big Ten, claiming 18 conference championships and racking up 556 wins.
While No. 2 Michigan (20-2) enters this conference season as the clear favorite to hoist the title in May, a more competitive season beckons as a bevy of new challengers aims to dethrone the Wolverines.
No. 22 Minnesota and No. 23 Nebraska are the most formidable contenders to Michigan, as they both are coming off NCAA Tournament appearances in 2015 and successful non-conference results this spring. Ohio State and Illinois are off to solid starts and both have received votes for the top-25 rankings this season.
Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue and Wisconsin also aim to make some noise as they all enter Big Ten play with winning records.
If 2015 was a two-horse race between Michigan and Minnesota, 2016 promises a different story.
The Daily broke down the teams that figure to contend for the Big Ten title.
No. 22 Minnesota (16-7)
Having made last year’s NCAA Tournament regionals, the Golden Gophers were on the cusp of a Women’s College World Series berth, only to see it ruined by perennial powerhouse Arizona. Fast forward a year, and Minnesota is once again poised to challenge for a Big Ten championship and a World Series appearance.
In non-conference play, the Golden Gophers went up against numerous top-25 opponents, earning several wins over the likes of No. 12 Georgia, No. 13 Oklahoma and No. 21 Arizona State but also falling twice to No. 10 Florida State and once to No. 8 Washington.
When it comes to personnel, Minnesota relies heavily on right-hander Sara Groenewegen to keep them in games, eat up innings and provide a boost at the plate. Groenewegen has not lost her step in the circle so far this season, as she enters Big Ten play with an 11-3 record and 1.80 ERA.
In the batter’s box, outfielder Kayla Wenner, infielder Sam Macken and infielder Danielle Parlich make up an imposing trio. They all hit over .300, with Wenner hitting a staggering .400.
If the Golden Gophers are able to find a reliable second pitcher to back up Groenewegen and take advantage of a conference schedule that does not include Michigan, expect this team to make a run at the Big Ten title.
No. 23 Nebraska (15-6)
Cornhusker junior infielder MJ Knighten is putting up numbers that rival those of Michigan’s Sierra Romero. The California native is second in the nation with 12 home runs and is hitting an eye-popping .435. Her teammates aren’t far behind, as Nebraska boasts six other hitters who average over .300. Senior outfielder Kiki Stoves is hitting .403 with 19 runs scored and senior infielder Alicia Armstrong has knocked in 20 RBI.
Couple this prolific lineup with a pitching rotation that consists of junior right-hander Cassie McClure (8-2, 2.51 ERA) and senior right-hander Emily Lockman (5-2, 2.82 ERA), and the Cornhuskers seem ready to take the next step from last year’s conference tournament runner-up into the Big Ten elite.
Ohio State (11-6)
The Buckeyes played all over the country to start their 2016 campaign and came away with moderate success. A win over No. 21 Arizona State is the high mark of the Buckeyes’ season to date, while losses to No. 9 James Madison and No. 23 Nebraska keep them out of the top 25.
Ohio State’s strength derives from the fearsome top half of its lineup. Alex Bayne, with her .364 batting average and six home runs, leads the way while Cammi Prantl is hitting .370 and Erika Leonard sits at .339.
For the Buckeyes, a best-case scenario puts them in the upper echelon of the Big Ten, but a serious challenge to Michigan, Minnesota, and Nebraska at the top is unlikely due to an inconsistent pitching staff.
The Illini surprised many last season when they recovered from a 12-18 start to go 14-9 in the Big Ten and 26-27 overall. A weak schedule left Illinois with few quality opponents in the opening stages of 2016, but a win over No. 10 Florida State signaled its improvement.
The Illini rely heavily on their lineup to score runs, as pitcher Jade Vecvanags is prone to walks and pitcher Breanna Wonderly to home runs.
Luckily for Illinois, Kylie Johnson is hitting .389, Allie Bauch has knocked in 15 runs, and Nicole Evans and Carly Thomas have combined for eight home runs.
Like Ohio State, the Illini are capable of posing a serious challenge to the Big Ten elite, but a more likely outcome places them fighting to be the best of the rest.
Michigan State (14-10)
Buoyed by the strong play of Lea Foerster (.451 average) and Celeste Wood (18 RBI), Michigan State seems to have erased the memory of last year’s disastrous season and looks primed to play a major part in this Big Ten campaign.
So far, the Spartans lost to No. 21 Arizona State and No. 12 Georgia by slim margins and have yet to record a victory over a ranked opponent.
An arduous non-conference slate posed problems for the Hoosiers, who lost to No. 11 Texas A&M, No. 3 Auburn and No. 15 Kentucky. Despite problems against SEC opponents, Indiana played all of those teams close and took Auburn to extra innings.
Indiana’s strength is in its arms, as Tara Trainer and Josie Wood make up a menacing duo and form the backbone of the Hoosiers’ hopes for a top-half Big Ten finish.
February and March brought the Boilermakers all over the country, with an inconsistent outcome to show for it. At times, Purdue played well, with a win over then-No. 25 Central Florida. But on other days, the Boilermakers were blown out, suffering a 11-1 loss to No. 18 Arizona.
If Purdue aims to better its 11th-place finish of last season, the continued hot hitting of Kristen Hoppman and Katie Harrison is of the utmost importance.
Heading into Big Ten play last season, Wisconsin held a 16-14 record. But conference matchups proved unfruitful for the Badgers, who stumbled to a 5-17 Big Ten record.
A similar start to this season gives the Badgers hope that things will be different, and with Kelsey Jenkins and Chloe Miller having combined for eight home runs and 42 RBI to date, Wisconsin’s hopes hinge on continued production from those two.