For Michigan, Tuesday’s win at Michigan State marked its first series sweep of a Big Ten team this season.
Now, as the Wolverines seek to earn their second, another rival — and another major test — will be in the opposing dugout.
The No. 23 Michigan softball team (27-13 overall, 7-6 Big Ten) will host Ohio State (27-10, 7-5) Friday through Sunday. Lacking a weekend sweep in Big Ten play this season, the Wolverines will pursue a complete weekend in front of a home crowd.
“I mean, everyone knows the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry,” freshman outfielder Ellie Sieler said. “It doesn’t matter what sport, so it’ll definitely be exciting. A lot of energy and a fun weekend.”
Despite being unranked, the Buckeyes come into Ann Arbor with a non-conference resume that edges out the Wolverines. While both defeated North Carolina, Ohio State also boasts wins against Kentucky and Miami, which Michigan lost and split to respectively. The Buckeyes also split against USF, who the Wolverines didn’t manage to beat back in February.
But despite being ahead of Michigan in overall conference standings, Ohio State has not fared as well against the two teams’ Big Ten opponents. They, unlike Michigan, dropped a game to the Spartans and lacked a win against Northwestern.
These resumes may lead Wolverine faithful to expect an even-handed battle of which rivalries are made this weekend, but the specific strengths of the Buckeyes will bring forth yet another test of Michigan’s reliability to get the job done.
Oftentimes in softball, it starts and ends in the circle. Ohio State left-hander Lexie Handley, a graduate transfer from Auburn, threw a complete game one-hitter against Michigan State this season. Wolverines senior right-hander Alex Storako boasted the same statline against the Spartans on Tuesday. Handley leads the Ohio State pitching staff towards a collective average of at least one strikeout per inning.
With a team that is still developing towards confidence at the plate, Michigan will be challenged by pitchers who so often take that away from batters entirely.
“We’re not a team that hits a lot of long balls, but I’ll tell you what we have been working on: just being feisty in the box,” Michigan associate head coach Bonnie Tholl said last Saturday. “And when you’re feisty in the box, you end up being just … a tad bit more focused on doing whatever it takes to get yourself on base as opposed to getting hits. And that’s the direction that we need to go.”
On the other side, the Buckeyes bring some feistiness of their own, but the biggest threat comes from their balance. Designated player Sam Hackenbracht homered twice last weekend at Iowa, leading the Ohio State core of six batters with batting averages above .300.
The Wolverines pitching staff will not just need to bring out dominant tendencies they’ve established this season, but do so in tandem with each other — which has been a rare occurrence.
The emotional stakes of the matchup will play a major role in providing them with motivation.
“It’s the best part about being at Michigan,” Storako said. “There’s always someone that has a target on your back coming after you.”
With ESPN and the Michigan Alumni Band set to attend games throughout the weekend for the first time this season, things are now in full swing at Alumni Field.
And in front of a home crowd, against their rival, the Wolverines have a chance to put it all together too.