A rivalry by any other name

James Coller/Daily
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By Justin Meyer , Daily Sports Writer
Published April 3, 2014

The No. 5 Michigan softball team has played 32 games in five states, lost just six times, beat current No. 1 UCLA, lost to former No. 1 Florida and taken the inside track for yet another Big Ten Championship. But the Wolverines haven’t yet played Ohio State.

“I don’t get caught up in that,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins Wednesday. “That’s all emotional stuff for the fans. We have a job to do: play softball, play well.”

So maybe this weekend’s series against the Buckeyes isn’t such a big deal. After all, Ohio State (5-1 Big Ten, 17-15 overall) hasn’t made it much of a rivalry, with a 1-18 record against Michigan since 2004. Hutchins has said and will say the Wolverines are playing the game of softball, not the opponent, whether that opponent is Detroit or the Buckeyes.

But sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero is excited.

“Oh my gosh, (last year) was so fun,” Romero said. “When you first come here, you hear so much about Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan, and playing on that day, there’s just a whole different kind of tension. The stands are so loud.”

Amid the longest home stretch of the season for Michigan (6-0, 26-6), the three-game series against Ohio State is the highlight before a homestand against No. 14 Minnesota.

The Wolverines haven’t played a close game since beginning Big Ten play, and have cut six of their last seven games short by the eight-run mercy rule that goes into effect after five innings. The team has been firing on all cylinders at the plate, pouring on 40 runs in a three-game series against Penn State last weekend, and even had freshman righty Megan Betsa turn in a complete game Wednesday.

Betsa was dealing with confidence issues, but showed the movement on her pitches that Hutchins has raved about earlier this season when she tossed a no-hitter and struck out eight against Detroit Mercy.

The Buckeyes should give Michigan more trouble at the plate than it has had recently, though, as sophomore pitcher Olivia O’Reilly has held opposing hitters to a .236 batting average. Two recent stompings of Indiana, by scores of 12-2 and 10-2, are also a good indication that this series won’t be a cakewalk for the Wolverines.

Ohio State figures to struggle against Michigan’s pitching core. First baseman Evelyn Carrillo leads the Buckeyes with a strong .380 batting average, but that would be good enough for just sixth on the Wolverines’ roster. The Michigan pitching staff has been excellent against top competition all year, and Ohio State doesn’t have the depth to counter.

Junior lefty Haylie Wagner has emerged as the best of the bunch for the Wolverines, but fellow junior Sara Driesenga and Betsa have both made significant strides after being pushed in practice.

“(The pitchers) are working really hard,” Romero said. “As soon as practice starts, they’re gone with (assistant coach Jen Brundage) and they’re doing their thing in the cages. They’re very fierce. When they’re pitching against us in practice, I’m not going to lie, I’m scared. I feel like I’m in a game situation because they’re coming right at me.”

When Michigan takes the field Friday, it will approach it like any other game — as it has all season — but it won’t be. Alumni Field will be packed, the first truly dangerous opponent of the Big Ten season will be in the opposing dugout and the Wolverines might have just a little more bounce in their step.

After all, it is Ohio State, and it is a rivalry game.