Just a couple weeks ago, I considered No. 20 Illinois the class of Big Ten softball this season. I predicted that they would surpass expectations and finish the regular season with the best record in the conference.

And for good reason.

At the time, the Fighting Illini were opening up Big Ten play with a 23-3 record. Their two starting pitchers rivaled the dominance of Michigan’s own starters. And sophomore hurler Monica Perry is returning from a 2009 campaign in which she set the program’s single-season strikeout record (yes, as a freshman). Their lineup, from top to bottom, is downright scary. It leads off with a .411 hitter, who’s then followed by a .419 hitter. By the time the middle of the order bats in the first inning, there’s roughly an 80 percent chance there’s already a runner on base, begging to be knocked home.

And who better to bring them home than Illinois’s clean-up hitter Meredith Hackett, who’s hitting a Big Ten second-best average at.427 and is fourth-best in RBI with 28?

On paper, the team is nearly flawless. Even more so than No. 2 Michigan (1-0 Big Ten, 24-5 overall).

And last weekend, Illinois came to Ann Arbor to play what I thought would be one of the more competitive series of the season for the Wolverines.

But it didn’t turn out that way. Not even close.

The Wolverines manhandled the Fighting Illini in a 7-1 blowout victory. And I was forced to re-evaluate my initial thoughts.

How is it that Michigan was able to dismantle every aspect of Illinois’s game? How did they send Perry packing after just two innings of work? And how did junior pitcher Jordan Taylor allow just five hits in a complete game effort to limit one of the best lineups in the country?

Upon reflection, the answer is really quite simple.

Michigan is far and away a more battle-tested and experienced team. They’ve played together for longer than Illinois has. And they’ve faced tougher competition, including last season’s Women’s College World Series.

Illinois’s two premier pitchers are both underclassmen — a freshman and a sophomore.

And you could see it when you read the body language of the players on the field.

You could see it when Michigan senior Nikki Nemitz jumped early on a fourth-inning-pitch and landed it foul on the roof of the Indoor Track and Field Building a good 100 feet beyond the left field fence. As the home crowd gasped in disbelief, Nemitz stepped back into the box with an ear-to-ear grin on her face, eager to straighten out the next pitch.

The Illinois hurler was still baby-stepping back to the mound, seemingly confused as to how anyone could hit a softball that far.

But this group of Wolverine softball players has witnessed plenty of that. This group has seen more and done more than any other team in the Big Ten. There are no freshmen starters.

As we approach the beginning of April, the softball squad enters the most important two-month stretch of play leading up to the WCWS.

And once again Michigan’s experience should propel them to best Illinois and the rest of the Big Ten by the time the postseason rolls around.

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