As one of the top teams in the Big Ten, Michigan has a huge
target on its back, week in and week out. Everyone strives to beat
the Wolverines, as they are the ones who set the standard for
play.

This weekend, Michigan’s softball team will head to
Champaign and Iowa City to face Illinois and Iowa, respectively.
The Wolverines play the Fighting Illini on Friday and Saturday, and
the Hawkeyes in a doubleheader on Sunday. Iowa is tied with
Michigan for first, and Illinois is one game back.

Going into the weekend that could make or break its run for a
Big Ten title, Michigan is focusing on its own play. According to
coach Carol Hutchins, the Wolverines prepare the same way,
regardless of whether they play the best or worst team in the
conference.

“We don’t look at any of our opponents
(differently),” Hutchins said. “We only care about
Michigan. Every opponent counts the same, every win and every loss
counts the same.”

Illinois is fairly new to the Big Ten softball scene. The
program first faced Michigan just three years ago. With three
consecutive top-six conference finishes, the Fighting Illini are a
force to be reckoned with. This season alone, Illinois has defeated
multiple teams in the top 25, including Louisiana State and Texas
A&M twice. Illinois has also won seven of its last 10 games
and, like the Wolverines did two weeks ago, the Fighting Illini
swept both Indiana and Purdue on the road last weekend.

Senior third baseman Erin Jones has been a big contributor in
the Fighting Illini’s success in conference play. She went
7-for-13 during last weekend’s road trip, raising her Big Ten
batting average to a team-leading .385.

Iowa, on the other hand, has long been Michigan’s nemesis.
Only a handful of teams can boast a winning record against the
Wolverines lately, but the Hawkeyes are one of the best. Michigan
owns a 37-50-1 all-time record against Iowa.

This year’s contests will be no easier than those over the
last 20 years, as the Hawkeyes return 2003 Big Ten Pitcher of the
Year Lisa Birocci, who is currently 15-8 with a 0.92 ERA. Birocci
was named Big Ten Pitcher of the Week last week, going 5-0 with a
perfect zero earned-run average and 32 strikeouts. Yesterday, she
led the Hawkeyes to a 4-0 win over Iowa State.

With yesterday’s victory, Iowa coach Gayle Blevins has won
999 games and is on the verge of becoming only the third coach in
Division I history to reach the 1,000-win plateau. Should the
Hawkeyes falter against Coe College this evening, they will be
going for the milestone on Sunday.

Regardless of the distractions that milestones, hostile crowds
or records may pose, Michigan will focus on itself.

“What we do a really good job at is not getting too up for
anybody,” Hutchins said. “We try to stay focused on
us.”

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