U-Michigan series is must win for both

Michael Rand

Last season, the Gophers softball team hosted Michigan in the final weekend of the season with a Big Ten championship on the line.
But Minnesota, which needed a sweep to win the title, dropped two of three games and took second place. The Wolverines earned their fourth conference championship in five years.
This weekend, the two teams will meet in Ann Arbor, Mich., but the stakes will be a little different. It’s a new Big Ten season, and Michigan (7-4 in the conference) is in third place followed by the Gophers (6-4) in fourth. Michigan State (12-0) and Iowa (9-0) are clearly established as front-runners in the title chase and Purdue (6-5) and Indiana (5-6) are within striking distance of Minnesota and Michigan.
Because only four teams make the Big Ten tournament, a sweep by either the Gophers or Wolverines this weekend could jeopardize the other team’s post-season aspirations.
Although Michigan coach Carol Hutchins is giving her team the “one game at a time” speech, she also knows the significance of this series.
“Like I said at the beginning of the year, it’s going to be a nightmare of a race in the Big Ten. The league is tough,” Hutchins said. “Minnesota has a good softball team. They hit the ball, and they’re one of the best defensive teams around.”
The challenge may be even more daunting for the Gophers, who split a doubleheader with lowly Northwestern on Wednesday. Coach Lisa Bernstein-O’Brien, who before the Northwestern games said she “fully expects to be 5-0 after the weekend,” can now hope for no better than 4-1 if Minnesota sweeps the three-game series.
Achieving that will be no easy task, particularly considering the Gophers’ 1-4 record against the Wolverines last season.
“We get along with (Michigan) off the field. On the field we have a good competitive rivalry,” Bernstein-O’Brien said. “Our players like to play against top teams.”
Despite playing in Michigan, the Gophers may have the upper hand in the series. Wolverines’ pitcher Sara Griffin, Big Ten Player of the Year in 1995 and 1996, is out for the season after breaking her arm earlier this month against Iowa.
Griffin dominated the conference as a freshman and sophomore, and had tremendous success against the Gophers. She threw a no-hitter against Minnesota last year and was the winning pitcher in all four of Michigan’s wins over the Gophers last season.
“She’s a huge impact player for us. Our confidence has struggled without her,” Hutchins said. “Every team has a go-to person. The confidence problem is that we’re still asking, ‘Who’s the go-to person now.'”
In a way, the Gophers have that problem — but it’s a good thing. Pitchers Jennifer Johnson, Steph Klaviter and Wendy Logue are all worthy of the go-to label.
Johnson is Minnesota’s career leader in strikeouts, Klaviter has a lifetime record of 38-8 and Logue threw an eight-inning shutout on Wednesday as the Gophers defeated Northwestern 1-0.
How well those three pitch, and how Michigan adapts to life without Griffin, should determine which team comes out of the weekend with a strong hold on a tough Big Ten race.
“Our goal is to be in the Big Ten tournament,” Hutchins said. “I never cared when we were in first place in April, and I don’t care that we aren’t now.”