Weekend with Northwestern and Michigan should be a good gauge

The Wolverines are ranked No. 1, and Northwestern is 4-0 in the Big Ten.

Chris Lempesis

Minnesota’s softball team’s home field, Jane Sage Cowles Stadium, might look more like a gauntlet than a softball diamond this weekend.

Such things happen when two of the top 20 teams in the nation are coming to town.

The Gophers (18-16, 1-3 Big Ten) have arguably their toughest weekend of the season on the docket. They will face No. 18 Northwestern (22-9, 4-0) on Friday and Saturday before battling top-ranked Michigan (36-3, 3-1) in a doubleheader Sunday.

“They are the top of the Big Ten,” co-coach Lisa Bernstein said of the Wildcats and the Wolverines. “They are very, very good teams. It’ll test our mental toughness. It really will.”

Senior shortstop Rachel Keeney said the series will be a good measuring stick to see where the Gophers are 34 games into the season.

“We’re really going to see what we’re made of,” she said.

In addition to seeing how mentally strong they are, the Gophers’ on-field prowess will also be tested, as both teams are solid in every aspect of the game.

Northwestern brings a very powerful lineup into the Friday and Saturday contests, ranking third in the Big Ten in home runs (32) and fourth in RBIs (143). The Wildcats are also strong in terms of pitching, with the second-best team ERA in the Big Ten (1.27).

“Northwestern’s a team that’s on the rise,” Bernstein said. “They’re hungry, because they’re competing to get to the top.”

The Wolverines figure to be an even tougher opponent.

Michigan has the lowest team ERA in the Big Ten (0.84) and boasts two of the best pitchers in the Big Ten in sophomore Lorilyn Wilson (15-2, 0.68 ERA) and junior Jennie Ritter (16-0, 0.98 ERA).

Offensively, the Wolverines lead the Big Ten in just about every major statistical category, including runs scored (232), hits (341) and home runs (58).

They also have something else Northwestern doesn’t: history.

Since 1995, Michigan has won six Big Ten regular-season titles and six tournament titles.

“Michigan has a tradition behind them,” Bernstein said. “They’re used to winning.”

While the opponents are indeed top-notch, the Gophers are not lacking confidence heading into the weekend.

How the confidence translates into the team’s on-field performance will determine if Minnesota is to come out of the gauntlet bruised and battered or battle-tested.

“(The games) should be very tough and close,” senior pitcher Lyn Peyer said. “But I think that if we stick to our game and just play our game, offensively and defensively, I think we should come out on top.”