The Big 10 has been a two team race the last few years with Michigan and Minnesota on top of the conference. That should not change this season except for one thing. The Wolverines and Golden Gophers do not play each other in the regular season. The only time Michigan and Minnesota can play is in the Big 10 Tournament which is hosted this year by Penn State.
So Michigan and Minnesota do not have to go through each other to win the regular season title. While Michigan has been the established dominant program in the Big 10 for decades and is one of the favorites to win the National Championship this season. The Gophers have become perennial postseason stalwarts and are quietly and quickly elevating to one of the top programs in the country under Head Coach Jessica Allister. The Gophers have high expectations coming into 2016 led by 2014 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year and All-American Sara Groenewegen who continues to put together an incredible career resume leading Canada to a Gold Medal in the Pan American Games this past summer.
The Wolverines however come in as the heavy favorites in the Big 10. Michigan opens its 2016 campaign with the same ranking it finished last year’s season with the No. 2 ranking in the USA TODAY/NFCA Division 1 Softball Coaches Poll following its runner-up finish in the 2015 Women’s College World Series championship losing to Florida in three games.
The Wolverines return eight of their nine regular starters on offense led by National Player of the Year finalist Sierra Romero. In the circle the Wolverines bring back 31-game winner Megan Betsa and will look to fill Haylie Wagner’s spot in the rotation with senior Sara Driesenga who returns after an injury in 2015.
One of the bigger questions is can anyone in the Big 10 challenge Michigan and Minnesota? Two teams that come to mind is Northwestern and Nebraska who both made the NCAA Tournament last season. The Wildcats have a favorable schedule hosting Minnesota and Nebraska this season although they do have travel to Ann Arbour to to play the Wolverines. Nebraska who got to the Big 10 Tournament championship game last season losing to Michigan gets to host the Wolverines this season but have to travel to Northwestern and Minnesota.
Another storyline this season in the Big 10 is how will first-year Big Ten Head Coaches Tyra Perry at Illinois coming over from Ball State and Julie Wright at Maryland who comes from Idaho State where Wright won three straight Big Sky titles. Wright hired Lisa Norris away from Louisiana-Lafayette to be the pitching coach. Since 2009, Norris has played for the Akron Racers of the National Pro Fastpitch League, where she was named NPF Pitcher of the Year in 2010 and All-NPF in 2009 and 2010.
On In The Circle Podcast, Eric Lopez and Victor Anderson spoke to Justin McLeod of Justin’s World about the outlook of the Big 10. Among the topics discussed :
- Can Michigan bring the Big 10 the National Title?
- Can Minnesota knock off Michigan for Big 10 title?
- Outlook on Northwestern and rest of teams in Big 10
Big 10 Players to watch :
Sierra Romero– Michigan– A two time Big 10 Player of the Year (2013,2014) as well as National Player of the Year finalist looks to lead Michigan to the National title and perhaps this is the season Romero gets the nod for the elusive National Player of the Year award. Romero was named Michigan’s Female Athlete of the Year in 2014-15 and the inaugural espnW Softball Player of the Year after leading the Wolverines with a .449 average, 22 home runs and 83 RBI. Romero is a three-time NFCA All-American, including a two-time first-team selection, and is already Michigan career record holder in six offensive categories.
Sara Groenewegen- Minnesota – Just entering her junior season, Groenewegen already became the third player in conference history to win Big Ten Player, Pitcher and Freshman of the Year awards in her career. Groenewegen won the Big Ten Player of the Year beating Romero for the award last season was the only underclassman to be named a USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Award top-10 finalist.
Andrea Filler, Northwestern– Filler might be the best kept secret in the Big Ten conference.. The former Boston College transfer has played a variety of positions since arriving in Evanston, including first base, designated player, and, most recently, shortstop. If she had a good year in 2014 (.333/6/40), her 2015 season was great. With a .395 batting average, a .735 slugging percentage, twelve home runs and sixty RBI, she earned first-team all-B1G honors as well as a spot on the all-region first team. Continuing a lengthy line of Wildcat stars, she is in position to have a huge senior campaign that can not only set her up for a spot on a professional roster according to McLeod, but help her team make some noise in the postseason.
Sara Driesenga, Michigan– What could have been the Wolverines’ 2015 pitching staff – Haylie Wagner, Megan Betsa, and Driesenga – are what beat reporters’ dreams are made of. Unfortunately, that trio never got to realize their full potential as a staff after Driesenga went down with injury and missed most of the 2015 season, including the postseason. After receiving a redshirt and clearance to return for her fifth year, Driesenga will play second-fiddle to Betsa thanks to Wagner’s graduation. She can get some innings and has shown over time that she has the stuff to be an elite hurler. If she can return to her form of 2012 and 2013, she will play a large role in helping the Wolverines return to Oklahoma City.
Eric Lopez Projections for the NCAA Tournament – 4 Teams
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