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8. Ohio State
11. Penn State
14. Michigan State
Player: Tristen Edwards, Nebraska
Pitcher: Amber Fiser, Minnesota
Newcomer: Caitlynn Neal, Nebraska
Projected regional teams: Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Wisconsin
Teams to watch
Amber Fiser enters the season with more career wins than any pitcher in Division I. And yet the best may be still to come for someone who is already a Minnesota legend. Fiser has already thrown nearly 700 innings despite pitching relatively little as a freshman. She threw a lot of pitches in 2018 and 2019. And maybe some of that workload started to show in a higher walk rate and ERA in 2020 (admittedly a small sample size). But with her accumulated wisdom and a fresh arm, the rest of the country will be glad the Big Ten is set to play a conference-only regular season schedule. The offense will count on Natalie DenHartog and MaKenna Partain, but a sophomore class that includes Delanie Cox, Kianna Davis, Olivia Peterson and Sydney Strelow will be vital in diversifying the run production.
Don’t be fooled by Northwestern’s losing record when last season shut down. The product of a typically rugged non-conference schedule, that 11-12 record doesn’t do justice to the potential of a roster poised to provide the payoff on several good recruiting years. There is particular wealth up the middle, where the Wildcats return catcher Jordyn Rudd, second baseman Rachel Lewis, shortstop Maeve Nelson and center fielder Skyler Shellmyer and figure to work in freshman Hannah Cady. The other central figure, of course, is junior pitcher (and sometimes slugger) Danielle Williams. A pair of tough outings against Tennessee and Oklahoma in the pandemic-shortened season skewed her sophomore ERA, but there is little to suggest the sensational freshman season that propelled her to player-of-the-year watch lists was any sort of fluke.
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Can the Wolverines score enough runs for Meghan Beaubien and Alex Storako? That answer will help settle not just Michigan’s season but the Big Ten season. Even with necessary caveats about strength of schedule and small sample sizes in a shortened season, Michigan’s anemic .368 team slugging percentage in 2020 won’t cut it in 2021. As with Minnesota, improvement may come most readily from the sophomore class. Lauren Esman, Audrey LeClair, Julia Jimenez and Lexi Voss were all prized recruits, but they saw their debut seasons cut short at roughly the time a lot of cold-weather freshmen normally find their college comfort zone. And again, with Storako, who led the major conferences in strikeout rate last season, and Beaubien, who had a 0.86 WHIP, even a few runs of support will be enough.
Keep an eye on
It’s a pretty simple formula at Indiana. If the Hoosiers have a pitcher as good as associate coach and pitching guru Chanda Bell was in her Kentucky heyday, they have a chance to be pretty good. Well, Emily Goodin may be able to make that claim in her second go at a senior season. Goodin inherited the ace role from Tara Trainer last season and had a 1.76 ERA and 0.95 WHIP in 107 2/3 innings against reasonable competition when play halted in 2020. It will help if well-regarded recruit Macy Montgomery can share a few of the innings. The core of the lineup returns, including shortstop Grayson Radcliffe (.576 SLG, .425 OBP) and, crucially, outfielder Gabbi Jenkins (.492 SLG, .429 OBP, 12 SB) for her second senior season.
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First instinct will be to expect the Badgers to regress without ace Kaitlyn Menz and slugger Kayla Konwent. That is reasonable. Both were among the more prominent players who will not use the additional season of eligibility. The right-handed Menz was an inspiring figure off the field and a workhorse on the field — she was on pace to pitch at least 150 innings for the fourth consecutive season. Konwent was no less valuable for both her character and All-American run production. But in-state product Haley Hestekin showed last season, especially in outings against Louisville and UCLA, that she is ready for more, while incoming freshman Gabi Salo was a top-50 recruit. And while Konwent isn’t the only offensive loss for Wisconsin, there is a reason Yvette Healy’s teams generally rank among Big Ten on-base and slugging leaders.