IU Coach Michelle Gardner knows the state of Michigan well.
A native of Petersburg, Michigan, Gardner was a collegiate softball pitcher and the Big Ten Player of the Year in 1988 while at Michigan from 1984 to 1988.
This weekend will be the fifth time Gardner returns to Ann Arbor while wearing cream and crimson instead of maize and blue.
“I love playing up there,” Gardner said. “I have a lot of friends and family that come watch us play, and anytime I have an opportunity to win up there it makes me happy.”
IU, 22-25 overall and 8-9 in the Big Ten, is traveling to face No. 19 Michigan at a good point in IU’s season. The Hoosiers have played some of their best softball during the past seven games.
A competitive series at then-No. 25 Ohio State, which IU beat for its first ranked win in more than four years, was followed by a close home loss to then-No. 20 Kentucky.
Then the breakthrough came last weekend when IU swept Maryland at Andy Mohr Field in Bloomington.
“If we go and play well, we’re going to come out of there with a victory or two or three,” Gardner said.
The Wolverines, 34-10-1 overall and 14-3 in conference, remain one of the Big Ten’s elite teams after a trip to the last two Women’s College World Series. There have been some unlikely losses for Michigan this year, though.
In a four-game span earlier this month, Michigan lost on the road to both Maryland and Wisconsin, two teams below IU in the conference standings. However, Michigan remains 13-0 when playing at home at Alumni Field.
“It was really good to get a sweep,” sophomore pitcher Tara Trainer said. “Going into Michigan, you want to have all the confidence you can have.”
IU needs all the help it can get to reverse its awful history against Michigan. Since 1997, IU is 2-48 against Michigan and suffered an 0-35 stretch from 1997-2011 and a current run of 12 straight losses.
To stop this trend, IU needs Trainer to be a strong presence inside the circle.
Trainer picked up two complete game wins against Maryland. She struck out eight batters in last Sunday’s extra-inning walk-off win.
She also showed an ability to control her walks in Sunday’s outing by issuing only one free pass.
“My walks have been an issue for me from the very beginning,” Trainer said. “But I tried to stay focused in both games.”
Michigan brings a potent offense into the series to face Trainer and the IU pitching staff. Senior outfielder Kelly Christner and sophomore utility player Faith Canfield both have more than 50 hits.
The Wolverines also rely on two exceptional pitchers in the circle. Senior Megan Betsa and junior Tera Blanco have started all but one of Michigan’s games in 2017.
Betsa leads Division I softball with 334 strikeouts and boasts a 19-7 record with a 1.3 ERA. Blanco isn’t far behind with a 15-3 record and an ERA of 2.07.
Trainer is expected to face off against Betsa in the circle, and said she has confidence in IU’s hitters.
“They’ve faced her before and done well,” Trainer said. “I think they’ll be fine.”
As if the three-game series wasn’t already rich with storylines, it will also pit sister against sister. IU junior infielder Taylor Uden will play against her younger sister, Michigan freshman infielder Madison Uden.
However, beyond the individual matchups, the series has a larger importance for IU as a team.
IU can catch Ohio State in fourth place or Nebraska in fifth place in the Big Ten standings if the Hoosiers can pull off a sweep of Michigan.
“We have to have all parts of our game,” Gardner said. “I feel comfortable with where we are.”