Bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded, tied game.
It was just past 1:40 p.m. and the heat was taking a toll on everyone in Louisville, Ky. They’d been at it since 11 a.m.
The Wolverines’ tough battle with Northwestern was turning into an epic game.
But senior pitcher Lorilyn Wilson’s 1-2 pitch hit Wildcat Nicole Pauly, forcing in the game-winning run.
And so goes pre-conference play.
This is typical Michigan-Northwestern softball. The two Big Ten powerhouses split the Big Ten Championships last season – Northwestern won the regular-season title (eventually becoming the Women’s College World Series runner-up), and Michigan beat the Wildcats 6-0 –for the tournament crown.
Their last meeting was the second day of last weekend’s Women4Women Invitational, and No. 10 Michigan (25-5) had just defeated then-No. 25 California the day before.
Teams are not quite in top form yet, so perfection is far from expected. Michigan played its toughest conference competition close to the end, and the loss didn’t affect its Big Ten record.
Today, the two teams meet again. And this time, it’s for real.
“I think last weekend when we played them, we both played a good game,” junior first baseman Samantha Findlay said. “And I feel like that game could’ve played out either way had we been playing like a conference game.”
Whereas the Wolverines had most of last season to build up to the daunting conference matchup, this year No. 8 Northwestern (24-6) is staring right at them from the get-go. The last time Michigan faced the Wildcats early on in the Big Ten season was four years ago. Northwestern swept the Wolverines in two extra-inning games, 6-5 (nine innings) and 3-1 (eight innings).
But even though they nearly matched the Wildcats blow-for-blow in Louisville, the Wolverines are not where they want to be offensively. It’s early in the season and room for growth is expected, but with conference play beginning, it’s important that the team’s offensive woes are turned around quickly.
Michigan left seven runners on base against the Wildcats. Twenty-eight more were stranded in the Wolverines’ three other games last weekend.
And Michigan’s biggest Big Ten matchup takes place today in Evanston – exactly when the Wolverines need their offense.
Although Wilson and Northwestern’s Eileen Canney combined for 27 strikeouts and just seven hits in the game, there was no shortage of offensive opportunities – there was just no converting.
Northwestern loaded the bases three times against Wilson, and Michigan had bases loaded in the eighth with Findlay up at bat. But only once did either team convert the loaded bases into a run scored.
For Michigan, the key to reversing its offensive misfortunes last week may simply be a refocus on the fundamentals and regaining confidence in its offense. Following the invitational-ending win against Louisville, in which the Wolverines put just two runs on the board, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said the team just needed to work on “the process” – the most basic parts of the game.
“I think they’re a little overly concerned with winning right now,” Hutchins said following the Louisville game. “Right now our perception of the game is making it a little bit more than we need to.”
Said Findlay: “We’ve definitely been mentally preparing for Northwestern. . I think they’re a tough team to beat, but I think we’ll be able to step up for the challenge this weekend.”
Last year, the late-season series between the two teams played a large part in determining the regular-season Big Ten champion. This year, there isn’t reason to think the championship doesn’t hinge on this first weekend of conference play.