As the only ranked team in the Big Ten, the No. 14 Michigan softball team is a favorite to win its sixth consecutive championship. The Wolverines (21-7) look in form as the conference slate begins, having won eight of 10 games, including an upset of No. 2 Arizona State. But coach Carol Hutchins’ team will face stiff competition this spring.

Wisconsin (22-3)

With only three losses through their first 25 games of the season, the Badgers could be Michigan’s biggest obstacle in its quest for the conference title. Pitcher Cassandra Darrah has shut down opponents all season with a 1.65 earned-run average and has completed 11 of 14 games she started. At the plate, outfielder Mary Massei has averaged an RBI a game, as she streaked through the non-conference schedule with a .451 batting average.

Nebraska (20-6)

The Big Ten’s newcomers didn’t treat its new conference too kindly in 2012, winning 14 games and finishing third. The Cornhuskers have historically been an elite program, winning 18 conference titles in the 35 years they’ve been affiliated with a conference. The Huskers will meet Michigan for the first time as Big Ten foes on April 26 in Lincoln. A two-time Pitcher of the Week last year, Tatum Edwards has continued her dominance this season, winning 12 games with a 1.76 earned-run average. Nebraska has an experienced leader in Rhonda Revelle, the only coach besides Hutchins inducted into the NFCA Hall of Fame.

Iowa (19-8)

The Hawkeyes barely cracked .500 last season but finished as the runner-up and just two games behind Michigan in the Big Ten. Thanks to Kayla Massey, Iowa hasn’t suffered from another slow start this year. The junior platoons with Chelsea Lyon in the circle and also terrorizes opposing hurlers with the second-highest batting average and most home runs on the team. The Hawkeyes have toppled four ranked teams this season, including a 6-2 win over then-No. 11 Louisville that ended a 37-game Cardinal home winning streak that stretched back to April 13, 2011. Seeking its first regular-season title since 2003, Iowa could play more than just a spoiler this year.

Ohio State (18-8)

The last team besides Michigan to win an outright Big Ten title, the Buckeyes returned five pitchers from a squad that won 31 games in 2012. But Melanie Nichols, one of the top performers last year, struggled in non-conference play and has seen less time in the circle as a result. A high-octane offense doesn’t hit for power, but it features five players batting above .300. Of them, Cammi Prantl has perhaps impressed the most. The freshman utility player boasts a .400 clip and started all 26 non-conference games.

Minnesota (17-10)

Even the Big Ten’s best sluggers might find themselves swinging at thin air against the Gophers’ pitching, which has already no-hit three teams this season. With a 1.18 earned-run average and 161 strikeouts through 22 appearances, Sara Moulton has flummoxed opponents all year. Utility player Kaitlyn Richardson has been on fire in 2013 and leads the team with an astounding .474 batting average, but she’s a bit of a double-edged sword as she’s committed more errors (nine) than any other Gopher. And besides Richardson and shortstop Tyler Walker, no Minnesota batter hits above .250.

Northwestern (14-10)

A perennial contender for the Big Ten crown, the Wildcats opened the season with five consecutive losses, but a win over then-No. 4 Tennessee highlights their improvement since then. Having led Northwestern for 12 years alongside her twin sister, coach Kate Drohan recently earned her 400th victory with the program. Drohan guided her team to back-to-back Women’s College World Series semifinal appearances in 2006-07 and might have the talent to do it again. The Wildcats are the only team in the Big Ten with two players on the Player of the Year Watch List in shortstop Emily Allard and third baseman Marisa Bast, and Northwestern will keep piling on wins if the sluggers heat up at the plate.

Michigan State (14-13)

After struggling through their non-conference slate in 2012, the Spartans didn’t find themselves on the positive end of the scoreboard for the rest of the season and went winless in the Big Ten. But the Spartans should steal at least a couple of games this year. Michigan will recognize most of its rivals’ key players — outfielder Kylene Hopkins and pitcher Kelly Smith are both upperclassmen — but Michigan State has added few new faces. One of just three freshman, Dani Goranson is the Spartans’ go-to reliever and gives them a little extra depth on the circle.

Indiana (15-14)

The Hoosiers return most of the key pieces of a team that finished fourth in the conference last year, including infielders Amanda Wagner and Shannon Cawley. But the veteran experience hasn’t translated into big non-conference wins, as Indiana has struggled against ranked competition. In one five-game road trip to California, the Hoosiers went winless and were outscored, 36-7. Indiana might have found a third weapon in infielder Breanna Saucedo, who has fully recovered from a foot injury in 2012 and batted over .500 in her first six games this season.

Illinois (10-12)

Despite a disappointing 2012 campaign, the Fighting Illini made history by becoming the first conference team in 11 years to defeat Michigan twice in a season in Ann Arbor. Pitcher Pepper Gay shut down the Wolverines en route to earning All-Big Ten honors, but she hasn’t repeated that success so far this season. As a result, Shelese Arnold has seen more time in the circle. Illinois is solid defensively — nine players boast a perfect fielding percentage — but has been uncompetitive against Top-25 opponents this year and will likely find itself near the bottom of the conference standings come May.

Purdue (11-15)

Pitching is key to a team’s success, and it might be instrumental to the Boilermakers’ downfall. While their lineup includes seven people batting over .300, none of Purdue’s pitchers have an earned-run average below 3.40. Still, the Boilermakers have quick-strike ability, having blasted 30 home runs so far this year. Catcher Danielle Fletcher’s patience at the plate has helped her knock eight home runs, and she also hits for average (.302).

Penn State (7-16)

Purdue should be glad its pitching isn’t as bad as Penn State’s. No hurler has an earned-run average below four, the unit as a whole allows 7.12 runs per seven innings and the Nittany Lions have surrendered 10 or more runs seven times this season. Don’t expect Penn State to finish in the top half of a tough Big Ten.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.