In 2009, the Michigan softball team opened the Big Ten portion of its schedule with a pair of games at Northwestern. The Wolverines dropped both — a sweep that would account for two of their three conference losses that season.
This weekend, Michigan (29-2) will once again open its conference slate with two games in Evanston. However, the team would much prefer to get off to a faster start with a tremendous non-conference performance in hopes of helping Big Ten title contention.
But Michigan coach Carol Hutchins refuses to let her team’s eyes fixate on anything other than the task at hand.
“I fully expect to keep that focus,” Hutchins said after last weekend’s trip to California. “If we don’t, it’s just not going to work.”
And by maintaining that focus, the Wolverines have enjoyed an opening half of the season filled with long road trips and even longer winning streaks — including a 17-game one to open the season. Now, Michigan will remain in the midwest and, eventually, Ann Arbor. The team will open play at Alumni Field on Wednesday against Bowling Green.
In order to find that early-season success, the Wolverines have had to defeat some of the nation’s top teams. Last weekend in Fullerton, Calif., Michigan defeated both No. 6 Arizona State and No. 7 Arizona. The lone loss of the Judi Garman Classic came in the last game against Fresno State. Senior Jordan Taylor took the loss in that decision, her second of the season.
“(Taylor) alone can’t win the games for us,” Hutchins said. “She certainly has to do her part.”
And Taylor will look to regain her composure this weekend against a Wildcat squad that has won seven of its past nine games. Last weekend, Northwestern (14-7) was also in California, taking on No. 13 Stanford and St. Mary’s. The Cardinal swept the series, but the Wildcats rebounded nicely with two 8-0 victories over St. Mary’s.
Taking both games on the banks of Lake Michigan will be important to starting the Wolverines on the road to the Big Ten championship.
In fact, entering arguably its biggest weekend of the season, it’s possible that a letdown like the ones suffered against Western Kentucky and Fresno State could be dangerous to Michigan’s conference title hopes. In winning the championship the past three seasons, the Wolverines have averaged just two losses during conference play. So whether the eventual champion is Michigan again or a new team, anything less than perfection during the opening weekend will not suffice.