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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Big Ten Conference Forecast

A member of the "Power Five" group of conferences, the "B1G" has teams spanning the north and northeast, with a reach as far west as Nebraska and all the way to the East coast. All of the conference's fourteen full member schools compete in softball. The Big Ten is the only Power Five conference to have every member school sponsor softball.

The top twelve teams in the regular-season standings earn berths to the conference tournament. The top four seeds earn first-round byes. The tournament operates on a single-elimination format, with the tournament champion earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament's field of sixty-four. The 2017 conference tournament will be hosted in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Wisconsin's Kelsey Jenkins should gain national prominence this year.
Photo: UW Athletic Department
Team that could improve and surprise: Wisconsin Badgers
     (The Badgers finished in the middle of the conference pack in 2016 with a .500 record in B1G play and finished four games over .500 overall. Junior Kelsey Jenkins is one of the best and most underappreciated players in the nation; she earned all-conference first-team honors in both of seasons in Madison thus far and set a program record for on-base percentage last year with a .568 mark. Outfielder Chloe Miller has enjoyed a largely-unheralded-yet-solid career of her own and set her own program record last year, when her fifty-one RBIs were good enough for tying the top number in single-season program history. The former Southern Conference Pitcher of the Year while at Mercer, Stevens' first year as a Badger impressed. She led the Badgers in the circle with more than 142 innings of work and a 3.19 ERA. She enjoyed a near 3/1 strikeout/walk ratio. The role players are in place; I expect the Badgers to improve and contend in 2017.)

Team that could decline and disappoint: Michigan Wolverines
     (Let's be unequivocal here: The Wolverines are still one of the nation's best programs. Carol Hutchins' record as a coach stands for itself. They find themselves noted in this spot for the simple reason that I don't think they'll contend for a national title on the level that they are used to competing. Sierra Romero was not only a great player, she was a great team leader. Losing her, as well as 2/3 of the starting outfield, and coupled with Megan Betsa's potential health issues give the Wolverines a lot of questions and potential problems. They may be looking at a Super Regionals exit this season, despite a lot of talent still on the roster.)

Player of the Year: Tera Blanco, Michigan
Pitcher of the Year: Sara Groenewegen, Minnesota
Coach of the Year: Jessica Allister, Minnesota

Conference Champs: Minnesota Golden Gophers
Top WCWS Contender: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Players to Watch:
--> Kelsey Jenkins, Wisconsin – I've previously dubbed Jenkins ""one of the best and most underappreciated players in the nation" and I'll reiterate that again already. One of the finest hitters in the conference, She improved her batting average over seventy points from her freshman to sophomore campaigns and improved her on-base percentage by nearly eighty points. Expect continued improvement in 2017; Jenkins is a budding star.

--> Tori Finucane, Minnesota – The former Mizzou hurler is coming off an injury-shortened season and a tumultuous offseason that led to her departure from Columbia and arrival in Minneapolis. With Sara Groenewegen leading the staff, Finucane should fit nicely into an effective #2 in the 1-2 punch. Expect her to thrive in this role in her own senior season.

--> Tera Blanco, Michigan – With the offensive production of Sierras Romero and Lawrence and Kelsey Susalla all departed, Blanco is going to have to sustain and even potentially improve on her all-American campaign of 2016. It's tough - and statistically improbable - to improve very much on a first-team all-American nod, but Blanco is on a short list that can do it. In 2016, she raised her batting average more than 110 points from her freshman season; nearly doubled her home run total; raised her slugging percentage more than three hundred points; and drastically dropped her strikeout numbers by nearly 50% while sustaining her patience at the plate and earning thirty-three walks. She should be in line for another all-American award and a favorite for the conference's Player of the Year title.

--> Tara Trainer, Indiana – Trainer had some seriously impressive moments in her freshman campaign and can be counted as a reason for the Hoosiers' improvement a season a go. Though she ended the year with a sub-.500 personal record, she put together a 3.20 ERA in 153 innings of work. One of her more impressive performances came in the early non-conference season, when she held the would-be SEC champion Auburn Tigers to one hit and scoreless through three innings before ultimately giving way to the powerful Tiger lineup. With a year of experience under her belt, she should anchor the Hoosier pitching staff and prove more battle-ready in similar matchups in 2017.

--> Kristina Zalewski, Michigan State – Michigan State head coach Jacquie Joseph called Zalewski a developing 'force to be reckoned with' after last season, and that moniker fits appropriately. Zalewski entered the top five of the program's all-time record books for single-season strikeouts last season en route to an all-region award for her efforts. She posted career highs in several categories, but lowered her ERA to a career-best 3.48. Under the guidance of new pitching coach (and one of the profession's brightest stars) Ashley Chastain, expect Zalewski to blossom in her redshirt junior season.

Biggest Questions:
* Will this be the year that Minnesota breaks through as a firm national contender?
* How will Michigan replace "the Sierras" in their batting order, lineup, and clubhouse?

Top Seniors:
P – Sara Groenewegen, Minnesota; Megan Betsa, Michigan; Tori Finucane, Minnesota; Cassie McClure, Nebraska; Marlaina Laubach, Penn State; Shelby Hursh, Ohio State; Shayla Starkenburg, Iowa
C – Kristina Dillard, Maryland
IF – Sam Macken, Minnesota; MJ Knighten, Nebraska; Abby Ramirez, Michigan; Lindsay Montemarano, Michigan; Erin Lehman, Indiana; Shelby Miller, Penn State; Alyssa Gunther, Illinois; Ruby Rivera, Illinois; Sarah Gutknecht, Michigan State
OF – Kelly Christner, Michigan; Alex Bayne, Ohio State; Sarah Calta, Maryland
UT/DP – Chloe Miller, Wisconsin; CaraMia Tsirigos, Indiana

Conference Projection:
1. Minnesota Golden Gophers
2. Michigan Wolverines
3. Penn State Nittany Lions
4. Nebraska Cornhuskers
5. Wisconsin Badgers
6. Northwestern Wildcats
7. Illinois Fighting Illini
8. Ohio State Buckeyes
Others: Indiana Hoosiers; Rutgers Scarlet Knights; Michigan State Spartans; Maryland Terrapins; Purdue Boilermakers; Iowa Hawkeyes

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