In the conference room at the new Donald R. Shepherd Softball Center, pictures of past Michigan Big Ten championship teams are proudly displayed on the wall. There’s just one problem: there’s no room for more pictures.
This fact is proof of how dominant the No. 4 Michigan softball program is as it’s vying for its eighth consecutive conference championship.
With arguably the best player and coach in the country in junior infielder Sierra Romero and coach Carol Hutchins, the Wolverines are favorites to win the conference, looking to add another picture to the collection, and in turn, moving the frames to a different, larger wall. But to achieve the milestone, Michigan will have to navigate past the following teams.
No. 15 Minnesota (24-4)
If any team in the Big Ten has a better offense than Michigan, it’s the Golden Gophers. They may be the only team capable of challenging Michigan for a conference championship.
Minnesota leads the Big Ten in batting average (.351), hits (270) and doubles (52). Despite a loss to No. 20 UCF, the Golden Gophers have beaten No. 12 Cal, No. 21 Arizona State and No. 24 Mississippi State. Their one-two punch of senior utility players Kaitlyn Richardson (.437 batting average, 31 runs batted in) and Hannah Granger (.474 batting average, 30 runs batted in) are both in the top five in those categories.
Player to Watch: Sophomore right-handed pitcher Sara Groenewegen
Headlining the pitching staff that leads the Big Ten in strikeouts is Groenewegen with 167 Ks. She has pitched 109 innings this season, the most in the Big Ten, taking a majority of the pitching duties for the Golden Gophers. Her 0.96 earned-run average, .152 opposing batting average and 15 wins are all best in the Big Ten. She also has offensive prowess, batting .338 and racking up 11 total bases in one game twice this season.
The Boilermakers haven’t played a very competitive schedule so far, just playing two ranked opponents, including a win against No. 23 Texas A&M. Purdue leads the Big Ten in triples (nine) and is second in Big Ten for lowest team ERA (1.78). Freshman outfielder Maya Hughes may be the future of the program, batting .315 and stealing 16 bases.
Player to watch: Senior infielder Ashley Burkhardt
Burkhardt is a triple-threat type of player, batting .438 while hitting eight home runs and batting in 32 runs. She leads the conference in hits (39) and is second in the Big Ten with 70 total bases. Her speed keeps teams guessing, as she has the ability to swipe four bases in one game — a feat accomplished in a March 15 contest against Western Michigan.
The Terrapins have lost all of their games to currently ranked teams, but their expertise is in plate vision. They rank second in the Big Ten in walks (109), and have walked 13 times in one game. Senior outfielder Erin Pronobis has a .387 average with 45 total bases.
Player to watch: Senior right-handed pitcher Kaitlyn Schmeiser
Schmeiser is among the top Big Ten pitchers, being the third-best pitcher in regard to wins (12), innings pitched (109) and strikeouts (104).
Ohio State (13-9)
The Buckeyes have lost to every ranked opponent they have faced this season: No. 11 UCLA, No. 9 Auburn and No. 18 Washington (twice). Freshman outfielder Taylor White earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors after hitting .583 with a home run and a triple at the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic.
Player to watch: Senior outfielder Caitlin Conrad
Conrad is the lead-off hitter for Ohio State, batting .358 with 25 RBI and a .642 slugging percentage.
Michigan State (15-12)
While the Spartans have struck out the fourth most in the Big Ten (139) and teams have stolen 45 bases on the Michigan State defense in 49 chances, they have shown signs of promise. They lost to No. 20 UCF by run-rule, but have beaten once-ranked Tulsa. Redshirt freshman right-hander Kristina Zalewski has a 1.63 ERA and 91 strikeouts to lead the pitching staff.
Player to Watch: Senior outfielder Alyssa McBride
Despite batting in the nine spot for a majority of the season, McBride — who batted .184 last season — is the leader of the Michigan State offense, batting .443 with a .538 on base percentage.
The Scarlet Knights have shown both excellence and failure at the plate. In one game, they hit six doubles, but in another, they left 15 on base. The pitching staff has a collective 4.76 ERA, and must pitch more efficiently if Rutgers wants to remain competitive in the Big Ten.
Player to watch: Senior outfielder Jackie Bates
Bates has a .439 batting average and is second in the Big Ten with a .930 slugging percentage.
The Wildcats have allowed the least amount of hits in the Big Ten (120), but that’s only because they haven’t played that many games. Junior right-handed pitcher Kristen Wood leads the pitching staff with 84 strikeouts and has held opponents to a .224 batting average. Northwestern has also struck out 14 times in one game, proving that its offense is not to be revered.
Player to watch: Senior outfielder Andrea DiPrima
DiPrima’s statistics may fall once Northwestern gets deeper into the season, but she is currently third in the Big Ten with a .466 batting average and second in the conference with a .597 on-base percentage.
The Badgers will put pressure on opposing teams on the base paths. They have stolen 86 bases in 101 chances, leading every other team in the Big Ten by at least 28 stolen bases. They have had one-run losses against formidable teams like No. 25 UAB (twice).
Player to watch: Senior outfielder Maria Van Abel
Van Abel is the catalyst of the Wisconsin offense, leading the Big Ten in stolen bases (21) while batting .407 with 35 hits.
The Cornhuskers score in bunches (averaging close to nine runs a game) and are second in the Big Ten in batting average (.348). Eight players have started at least 15 games and have a batting average over .300. But they have lost to all of their ranked opponents, and the pitching is to blame. Hitters have punished the pitching staff to the tune of a .317 average and a 5.47 ERA.
Player to Watch: Junior outfielder Kiki Stokes
Stokes is batting .444, slugging .806 and has an on base percentage of .549.