A month and a half into the Michigan softball team’s season, it’s difficult to tell exactly what the Wolverines are.
They started with a somewhat middling debut in two tournaments where they were plagued by up-and-down hitting. While Michigan did manage to pick up narrow wins over No. 23 UCF and No. 22 LSU, it remained clear that the Wolverines’ hitting needed to improve, and so it became their main focus.
And the emphasis paid off.
Since the Duke Invitational in February, Michigan has found a new rhythm, posting a 13-3 record with impressive split series against No. 8 Kentucky and No. 13 Duke. Michigan hasn’t just posted a strong record, either — the team has finally become the dual threat that it simply didn’t look capable of being early on.
The Wolverines’ batting average has skyrocketed: Currently, seven of their nine starting batters are hitting above .300. It’s no longer just the graduate outfielder Kristina Burkhardt show at the plate — there’s more consistency and depth in the batting order.
The team’s veterans, like senior outfielder Lexie Blair, have bounced back. The newcomers, like freshman utility player Anabelle Widra and freshman shortstop Ella McVey, have become potent. And sophomore utility player Sierra Kersten has transformed from a bench player to Michigan’s second-best hitter and home run leader.
But despite the Wolverines’ change in fortunes, the question still remains: Is the recent success a product of genuine improvement? Or simply a result of beating up on weaker competition?
Discussions of Michigan’s recent successes have left a key detail unsaid: The quality of the competition it has faced these past few weeks isn’t high. Yes, Duke and Kentucky are very strong teams, and the fact that the Wolverines split series with each says something about them.
But it’s hard to say what exactly.
It has been a while since Michigan played ranked competition. In that time it has looked solid, generally dismantling the mid-major opponents it has faced, save for an ugly loss in its most recent outing against Miami.
But for a team with lofty goals, namely a Women’s College World Series appearance, the end goal isn’t to dominate against teams in the MAC — it’s to dominate everyone. And while being 4-5 against ranked opponents is respectable, it isn’t enough to satisfy the Wolverines. When it comes to the NCAA Tournament in May and June, a respectable record won’t be enough to propel them to where they want to go.
So, for now, Michigan remains an enigma. Was its middling start against ranked opponents a product of the fact that its truly excellent batters just hadn’t yet found their rhythm? Or did the Wolverines’ batters struggle against tougher competition simply because they don’t have the firepower to keep up with the truly elite teams of the nation?
The answer isn’t clear cut. But what is apparent is that the Big Ten season is starting at just the right time for Michigan.
In many ways, the Big Ten is the happy medium between a rigorous SEC competition schedule and exclusively playing mid-majors. The Big Ten isn’t stellar, but it’s solid. And because of this, the Wolverines will consistently be tested.
Series against teams like No. 11 Northwestern, Ohio State and Nebraska interspersed throughout the season will elucidate the composition of the Wolverines.
The Big Ten isn’t the SEC, but whether or not Michigan’s major strides of late hold up against consistently tougher competition will speak volumes about this team’s true potential.
So for now, for the Wolverines, bring on the Big Ten.