Michigan team to beat at Big Tens

Michael Dougherty

Michigan holds a clear advantage entering the Big Ten softball tournament, largely because it has won the title in each of the three years the tournament has existed.
The No. 2 Wolverines (48-4 overall, 22-1 in the Big Ten) earned the home-field advantage for this weekend’s tournament thanks to their first-place conference finish this season.
The 20th-ranked Gophers (45-17, 14-9), meanwhile, tied for third in the conference with Iowa, but dropped to the fourth seed because they were swept by the Hawkeyes two weeks ago. That set up a meeting with Michigan at 1:30 p.m. today.
Iowa, ranked No. 18 with a record of 35-16, will face second-seeded Northwestern (34-17, 15-9) in the first game of the tournament at 11 a.m. today.
Wildcats coach Sharon Drysdale said she considers the Big Ten the second-best conference in the country behind the Pac-10.
“I think Michigan is certainly the team to beat,” she said. “They have the reputation and the credentials.”
Drysdale was referring to a squad that returned seven starters from the team that tied for fifth in last season’s Women’s College World Series with a 56-16-1 record. Michigan also boasts a perfect 9-0 record in the Big Ten tournament.
But Gophers coach Lisa Bernstein-O’Brien said she knows what her team must do to knock off the Wolverines.
“A lot of times teams look at a team like Michigan and are out of it before they even walk on the field,” she said. “But we have to focus on ourselves, and not get wrapped up in Michigan and their home crowd.”
Minnesota was 7-1 in the conference on April 11 when undefeated Michigan came to Minneapolis for a three-game series.
But the Gophers dropped all three games by scores of 6-3, 9-0 and 6-5. Minnesota then traveled to Iowa for a doubleheader later that week, and lost both games 1-0 and 2-0.
“There’s probably just one week I’d like to totally erase, and Hutch (Michigan coach Carol Hutchins) and Gayle (Iowa coach Gayle Blevins) were a part of that,” Bernstein-O’Brien said. “If we could have turned that around we’d be in a lot better shape.”
Hutchins denies that her team is the clear favorite, saying this is a tournament anybody can win. But the Wolverines are sitting in a great spot — right where the Hawkeyes found themselves last season.
Iowa finished the conference schedule at 22-0, becoming the first team to go undefeated in conference play. But Michigan went to Iowa City and stole the tournament title from the Hawkeyes, winning 3-2 in the first game and 4-2 in the championship.
Iowa received an at-large regional bid and went on to finish in a tie with Michigan at the WCWS. This season, however, the Hawkeyes have struggled to overcome the loss of six starters.
“Our lineup has changed almost every weekend in the Big Ten conference,” Blevins said. “I can honestly tell you it’s the first year that I’ve ever gone through something like this.”
Northwestern also graduated some key players, and lost several more to injury. Drysdale said her team’s play has been so up and down she doesn’t know what to think of its chances. Yet Drysdale said she expects the competition will be tough.
“It’s a characteristic of Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa,” she said. “They are all kind of like pit bulls. They go after you and they don’t let go. It’s a dugout presence.”