Most people would assume that the opening of the Big Ten season
for most teams produces a certain amount of stress. While
nonconference games can be lost without destroying a team’s
ability to attend championships, it’s not the case with
conference competition. But the No. 11 Michigan softball team opens
conference play this weekend with less stress than most squads.

Michigan Baseball
Shortstop Jessica Merchant heads into this weekend with a team-leading eleven homeruns. (DANNY MOLOSHOK/Daily)

Having already competed against four top-10 teams earlier this
season, including No. 1 UCLA and No. 5 Florida State, the
Wolverines are prepared for any competition that might come their
way.

“I think it gave us an opportunity to try a lot of
different lineups and give all our pitchers some good
experience,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “There
were some tough teams, but I think they made us stronger. But its
like I always say, ‘Nothing changes about the game except
your perception of it.’ ”

This weekend, the team opens up its Big Ten schedule with a game
against Indiana (19-16) today and Saturday, and it continues on
Sunday with a doubleheader against Purdue (21-10).

“Big Ten games are always intense,” Hutchins said.
“There is always something on the line. Most years it comes
down to the last game of the season to see which team wins the
championship. Every game counts.”

Michigan holds an 11-10 all-time record in Big Ten openers. It
has lost its last two conference debuts, falling to Illinois last
season and Penn State in 2002. Both of those losses took place in
Ann Arbor. The Wolverines do, however, hold a 14-7 all-time record
for Big Ten road openers and have won six straight, three of which
have come against the Hoosiers. Even with history on her side,
Hutchins is hesitant to make assumptions about certain teams
because she believes every Big Ten team will put up a good fight
when it comes down to game time.

“The Big Ten opener is like our second season,”
Hutchins said. “Our goal is to win the Big Ten Championships
this year, but I think my toughest job will be keeping the team
focused enough to do it. We must maintain clear minds for every
game, and try not to worry about stuff we can’t control
because we can’t control anything until game time.”

In preparation for this weekend’s games, the team has been
focusing primarily on aggressively hitting the outside pitch and
strengthening the defense at the corners this week.

“We’ve had some great practices this week,”
Hutchins said. “It’s obvious that our players are going
to step it up for the games.”

While Hutchins has been impressed by the performances of most of
her players, she has been most pleased with the improvement made
this season by junior shortstop Jessica Merchant.

Merchant was named Big Ten Player of the Week last week for the
second time this season, hitting .571 and slugging an unbelievable
2.143 for the week. In just seven official at-bats for the week,
she had three home runs and a triple. Her 15 total bases on just
four hits helped the Wolverines extend their winning streak to
eight with doubleheader sweeps over Bowling Green and Valparaiso
last week.

While Merchant is excited about having already hit 11 homeruns
this season — a total that puts her on target for breaking
Michigan’s all-time homerun record — the shortstop says
that she never plans ahead for hitting them.

“If it happens, it happens,” Merchant said.
“I’ll try to get on base or bunt; anything my team
needs me to do to win.”

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