For the first time in Big Ten softball history, IU prepares to be the home team at this weekend’s conference tournament at Andy Mohr Field.
With the conclusion of the regular season schedule last weekend, the top 12 teams in the Big Ten standings now have their sights set on a possible tournament title and an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
Whereas Michigan and Minnesota are no strangers to success, having won 14 combined Big Ten titles, the rest of the 12-team field has just six combined titles among them.
IU is still in search of its first Big Ten Tournament title in program history. But those fortunes could turn for the better this weekend as the Hoosiers get the luxury of playing in front of their home crowd.
After finishing the season with a 35-20 overall record and a 10-13 record in conference play, IU earned itself a seven-seed and a matchup Thursday evening with 10-seed Penn State.
The Nittany Lions, who the Hoosiers secured a series victory over to close out the regular season, rode a hot second half of the season to sneak into the tournament with a 7-16 conference record and a 24-31 overall record.
The most recent series between IU and Penn State had far less stakes and took place in University Park, Pennsylvania, but this time both teams will do battle in Bloomington for a chance to move on to the second round Friday.
The first time around, Penn State took advantage of IU's aggressive tendencies. The Hoosiers struck out 17 times in a three-game span with the Nittany Lions’ Bailey Parshall accounting for 13.
If Penn State wants to take down IU’s gritty offense, it’s likely going to have to start with Parshall in the pitching circle and keep IU off the bases.
Pitching will be a key factor in IU's postseason success but will likely fall on the shoulders of senior Tara Trainer. Much like the majority of this season, the Hoosiers will likely go as far as Trainer’s arm can take them.
“We believe in Tara Trainer, and for us to have a great tournament, it’s going to start with her in the circle,” IU Coach Shonda Stanton said.
In the three appearances Trainer made against Penn State this season, she earned two wins while racking up 17 strikeouts and allowing just one earned run.
Led by senior outfielder Toni Polk, the Nittany Lions are a strong offensive team having hit 48 home runs and putting together a .270 batting average. Polk has played a large role in those numbers as she leads the team in batting average, runs scored, hits and home runs.
“Just looking back at our past series with Penn State, whichever team gets the timely hit is going to be the one to move on,” Stanton said.
Should IU defeat Penn State on Thursday, a tough matchup awaits in round two in the form of No. 18 Northwestern, who finished the season with a 21-2 conference record.
The Wildcats are armed with a potential Big Ten player of the Year candidate in freshman Danielle Williams. A dual-threat player who contributes on both sides of the ball, Williams’ 266 strikeouts and 1.46 earned run average are second-most in the Big Ten, and she’s also made 75 appearances as a hitter.
Where Northwestern thrives the most is in its elite pitching, with only No. 11 Minnesota topping Northwestern in ERA, walks allowed and strikeouts in the Big Ten.
For the Hoosiers to take down the Wildcats, the offense will have to find holes in the pitching staff to exploit. IU hasn’t been a great offense statistically this season, but it steals bases at an unrelenting pace and could be the recipe for making a run in the tournament.
Looking ahead to round three, Minnesota, Rutgers and Purdue would be the possible challengers on IU’s side of the bracket, with the winner moving on to Sunday’s championship game.
“We’re excited to have every game televised at Andy Mohr Field,” Stanton said. “We know the Big Ten’s excited, and you’re going to see high-level softball being played all the way around.”
IU will take on Penn State at approximately 4:30 p.m. Thursday with the first two games getting underway at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
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