The Michigan softball team will look to continue its momentum swing against Penn State.Anna Fuder/Daily. Buy this photo.

The No. 22 Michigan softball team is starting to pick up some momentum. 

Following a skid of historic proportions to open the Big Ten conference season, the pieces are beginning to fall into place for a recovery. After taking the series finale from No. 9 Northwestern in convincing fashion last weekend, the Wolverines built off that performance to earn a rivalry win over Michigan State on Wednesday. 

“Our biggest thing is how great of a job we are doing right now of empowering each other and cheering each other on,” graduate utility player Melina Livingston said after beating the Spartans. “We’re just keeping that energy, and that energy is going to take us all the way.”

Michigan now gets a chance to carry that energy forward and improve its position in the conference standings. Currently sitting at 2-4 in Big Ten play, the Wolverines can’t afford to drop many more conference games. But if everything goes according to plan this weekend against Penn State, Michigan should find itself above .500 in the conference and riding a five-game win streak.

Because on paper, these are games that Michigan should win. The Nittany Lions sit at 23-11 and 4-2 in conference play, but are 0-5 against teams in the top 50 of the RPI. Penn State also ranks last in the Big Ten in team batting average, on base percentage and runs scored.  

But the Nittany Lions cannot be expected to just roll over against the Wolverines. 

“To me, every game is a rivalry game,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said Wednesday. “I’ve never played an opponent that doesn’t hate us.”

And while Penn State has poor metrics on paper, a few pieces could give the Wolverines trouble. Nittany Lions ace Bailey Parshall boasts a 1.43 ERA and is limiting opposing batters to a .183 batting average. In her best performance of the season, she held No. 24 Missouri scoreless through seven innings before Penn State eventually fell in extra innings. 

At the plate, the Nittany Lions carry a dynamic one-two punch in catchers Ally Kurland and Cassie Lindmark. Kurland ranks third in the Big Ten with 13 home runs, and Lindmark leads the team with a .406 batting average, tacking on 5 deep shots of her own. Together, the pair could quickly cause problems for Michigan senior right-hander Alex Storako, who is suddenly very vulnerable to home runs. 

Even so, the Wolverines should win these games. They’re simply the more talented team, even if they haven’t always played like it as of late. As they try to fight their way back into the conference race, they should have enough behind them to avoid a lapse against weaker competition.

“We’re in a bunker,” Hutchins said. “We gotta fight, we gotta find our way out of it. This is all about one game at a time and we need to be all in.”

Should Michigan manage to avoid an upset loss this weekend, it would carry a little extra sweetness for one player. As a transfer from Penn State, Livingston — who is riding a recent hot streak — will have the opportunity to square off against her former teammates this weekend.

“I’m super excited,” Livingston said. “I definitely love all the girls on that team, but I’m excited to show them what Michigan softball’s about.”

If the Wolverines execute the way that Livingston expects them to, they should find themselves with a home sweep of the Nittany Lions. While it will be hard to erase the early 0-4 deficit they put themselves in, that sweep will help them find their way back into the center of the conference race. 

If nothing else, this series should be a chance for Michigan to keep the small momentum they have started to build going, entering the thick of Big Ten play.