Big Ten has recipe for softball success

April, 2, 2009
The Big Ten turned in a surprisingly strong run in the NCAA women's basketball tournament. Compared less than favorably to the Mountain West by some (all right, me), the conference sent three teams to the Sweet 16 and watched Purdue come within a few breaks of possibly knocking off Oklahoma in the Oklahoma City Regional final.

It will be less surprising if a Big Ten representative is among the eight teams in the capital of the Sooner State for the Women's College World Series in May. In fact, with the way Michigan and Northwestern have been playing, it won't be much of a surprise if a quarter of the field in Oklahoma City is composed of Big Ten material.

I caught Northwestern's stop at the University of Maryland last week, a 7-2 Northwestern win which turned out to be the start of a streak of four consecutive games in which the Wildcats hit three home runs. That streak continued in a 9-1 run-rule win at Michigan State on Wednesday. And it says something about how well the team's offense is clicking right now that the subsequent 11-2 run-rule win in the nightcap against the Spartans actually snapped an offensive streak for the Wildcats, who managed just a single home run as they improved to 20-7.

The timing of the games against Michigan State is of special interest, along with doubleheader sweeps Wednesday for Michigan at Penn State and Iowa at home against Illinois. This season the conference did away with the monster four-game weekend sets in which half its teams were playing single road games Friday and Saturday and then traveling to another site for a Sunday doubleheader (an especially onerous scheduling quirk on the weekends when teams had to trek to Penn State).

Ohio State stepped out of conference Wednesday, sweeping a pair of easy wins from Ball State at Buckeye Field in Columbus after splitting a pair of games over the weekend against Iowa. But with a trip to Minnesota coming this weekend and then a midweek trip to Indiana on Wednesday, longtime coach Linda Kalafatis was readying for her team's first taste of a new system aimed at reducing the travails of life on the road.

"We're getting ready to go on the road for the first time and then come back for a day or two and go on the road again for midweek, which we're not accustomed to doing," Kalafatis said after the Ball State wins. "But it's so much less of a toll on the weekend, and that's what we were really after.

"I mean, we're Big Ten schools, so we've got to travel all preseason anyway. And then when we start Big Ten, half the time you're traveling -- and then you've got to travel to a site, then just travel to another site. And then there's the Big Ten tournament, [at a site] we don't know until late, so then you're hurrying up to make travel arrangements, usually, because all but one is traveling. And then there's regionals, with the possibility of traveling again."

Up until this year, the conference tournament had been hosted by the regular-season champion. But as a result of the extra days needed to make the new schedule work, the tournament was eliminated. And that's not necessarily a bad thing for the league's hopes of sending not just familiar names to Oklahoma City but getting three or four teams in super regional play.

When it comes to conference tournament, I'm firmly entrenched in the camp of hypocrisy. Any chance to watch three or four games in a day is a good thing from the perspective of fans in the stands. If you're there, they're fun. But in the long run, conference tournaments do more to dilute than enhance a league's product.

Upsets hurt seeding earned over the course of the regular season; extra-inning games and rain-condensed schedules tire out pitching; and travel adds to general fatigue.

Most of the Big Ten's premier programs set a high standard for scheduling early in the season. Michigan and Northwestern routinely play two, three and four ranked teams in a weekend at some of the biggest tournaments. Ohio State is another regular participant in places such as Palm Springs, Calif., and this year alone played LSU, Texas A&M, Washington, Nevada and Louisville early and then squeezed in a trip to play North Carolina between early conference dates. Purdue opened the season at UCLA. And the list goes on.

The result is that the conference opened April with five of the RPI top 25, a strong enough base to keep from sinking as teams begin to play primarily each other. With everything riding on the regular-season standings, every series means more. And the teams that hold up best to that pressure over the long haul -- rather than a few days in early May -- should have a good shot at a seed and possibly a chance to host during regionals.

Like in the Pac-10, the regular season means something now in the Big Ten. And that may help teams like Ohio State, with a blossoming power game and two quality pitchers in Kim Reeder and Lindsay Bodeker, once the NCAA tournament arrives.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.



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