Only a few weeks ago, the Michigan Softball team was in high spirits; having seemingly rebounded from a shaky start to win three consecutive weekends and a pair of midweek games against Michigan State, the Wolverines were in a strong position to finish in the top four of the conference standings and be a shoo-in for the NCAA Tournament.
Based on the current state of affairs, however, a few weeks ago might as well have been a lifetime. A highly controversial series loss to Northwestern gave way to back to back series sweeps, resulting in a shocking 1-8 finish to the season that sent Michigan all the way down to 10th place in the Big Ten standings and only flimsily on the bubble for an at-large NCAA bid.
As the Big Ten Softball Tournament revs into gear at Illinois’ Eichelberger Field today, it’s clear the Wolverines need to show they can hang with the best for the Selection Committee to give them a ticket to the dance.
Here’s what Michigan is up against as they try to do just that.
First Round: Penn State
The Wolverines’ first opponent of the tournament is a rather run of the mill bubble team — a respectable 30-15 overall record, a middle of the road 11-11 conference record, nothing truly spectacular. What makes this match-up an interesting wrinkle to Michigan however is the lack of routine in Penn State’s line-up — of the Nittany Lions’ 14 players with 45 at-bats or more, just four batters meet the minimum requirements of being a qualified hitter.
Pitching wise, Penn State’s ace is Bailey Parshall, and she has the stats to earn that moniker — holding a 1.87 earned run average in 36 appearances, including seven shutouts.
This is, in my view, the single toughest game the Wolverines will have all tournament. It’s simply impossible to ignore the impact Hoosiers second baseman Taryn Kern brings to the game — leading the nation in home runs and on-base plus slugging and sitting in the top five of RBIs.
In their series two weeks ago, Indiana dismantled Michigan’s pitching — outscoring the Wolverines by a whopping 25-7 margin over all three games. Simply put, it’s gonna take Lauren Derkowski’s all to prevent the Hoosiers from running roughshot once again.
Most Likely Semifinal: Minnesota
Should Michigan hit the semifinals and beyond, there’s no longer a set path in place, as the Wolverines could potentially face any one of 11-seed Rutgers, six-seed Ohio State, or three-seed Minnesota for a spot in the title game. Of these three teams, the Golden Gophers are most likely to be waiting for them in the semifinal, having easily swept the Buckeyes in their regular season series two weeks ago.
Like Indiana, Minnesota had Michigan’s number when the two teams faced off, sweeping the Wolverines just three days ago. In those games, it was the Golden Gophers’ pitching ace Autumn Pease that stood out, holding Michigan to just seven total hits in a pair of complete game shutouts.
Most Likely Final: Northwestern
Of the six teams on the opposite side of the bracket, it’s nearly impossible to imagine any of them but the top-seeded Northwestern Wildcats making it to the championship game. With a 20-3 conference record, the Wildcats are, in theory, the team to beat this year.
I say in theory because when the Wolverines faced off with them in Ann Arbor three weeks ago, Northwestern looked as vulnerable as they’ve been all season. Between an eleven-inning war, a run rule blowout, and perhaps the most controversial umpiring of the season, it could be argued that Michigan could have easily walked out of the weekend with a full-blown sweep than the series loss they ended up with. If the Wolverines can get this far in the tournament this year, who’s to say they can’t win it all?
Where does Michigan finish: Quarterfinals
Semifinals: No. 2 Indiana vs No. 3 Minnesota, No. 1 Northwestern vs No. 5 Wisconsin
Finals: Indiana beats Northwestern in a high scoring, extra innings thriller
Most Outstanding Player: Taryn Kern, 2B, Indiana