On April 24, trailing Iowa 2-0 entering the final inning and missing the ace of her pitching staff, Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins knew the home stretch of the 2011 campaign could go in one of two directions.
Fortunately for her — and her streak of seven consecutive Big Ten titles — it seems to have taken a turn for the better.
Entering Wednesday’s crucial doubleheader with Ohio State (2-10 Big Ten, 13-29 overall), the Wolverines are desperately seeking a sweep — winning both games would push them into a first-place tie with Indiana. Michigan (12-2, 45-4) split its season series with the Hoosiers.
According to Hutchins, the Buckeyes, though the conference’s bottom-dwellers, are not to be taken lightly.
“The bottom line is it doesn’t matter where anybody is ranked,” Hutchins said. “Ohio State is a very dangerous team. They are very athletic. They have a lot of really fine players. They’re in our way.”
The Buckeyes are coming off a brief vacation from the conference slate that has presented several challenges for the young team — almost two-thirds of the roster is composed of freshmen and sophomores. Last weekend, Ohio State needed extra innings to sneak past Morehead State in game one of a double header that the Buckeyes would eventually sweep.
The Buckeyes are led by junior shortstop Alicia Herron, whose .669 slugging percentage leads Ohio State’s team. Her seven homeruns and .372 batting average are also the best on the Buckeyes roster.
The real problem for this Ohio State team that has seen wins come at a premium this year is its pitching staff. The Buckeyes’ lowest ERA is a rather mediocre 4.58 — held by senior hurler Karisa Medrano. Medrano, who leads the team in starts and innings pitched, has been extremely hittable thus far and, if she receives either of the starts in the double header, may be hard-pressed to record outs against Michigan senior Alycia Ryan — on a tear as of late — and junior Amanda Chidester.
But the Wolverines have struggled with slumping opponents at times this season, including a loss to Western Kentucky in Louisville, Ken. Hutchins won’t tolerate a poor showing from her squad, especially with a conference title potentially on the line in Ann Arbor.
“If we treat them any different than any other team, that would not be a good Michigan approach,” Hutchins said. “(We) expect it to be very difficult.”
After hosting the Buckeyes, the Wolverines will be down to the season’s final two weekends. Minnesota will visit Alumni Field this weekend, and May 13 and 14 Michigan will play a home-and-home series against Michigan State.
The NCAA Tournament looms near and the Wolverines can ill afford a bad loss so close to the selection and seeding of the field. Michigan has filed the necessary paperwork to potentially host regional action at Alumni Field, if awarded by the committee. Any losses the rest of the way could put those chances in danger and, more importantly, cost the Wolverines their eighth straight conference crown.