The Ohio State softball team might be only one weekend into its Big Ten schedule, but the Buckeyes (18-7, 3-0) are currently sitting atop the conference after sweeping Maryland in their home debut.
This first-place standing could give OSU the upper hand as it looks to continue its win streak in its three-game matchup against Wisconsin (16-12, 2-1), which is set to start Friday at 5 p.m.
The Buckeyes have not faced the Badgers since the 2013 season, so the matchup will be a change of pace. Still, OSU coach Kelly Kovach Schoenly said she is aware of the momentum and energy Wisconsin will likely bring this weekend.
“We will play a tough team this weekend in Wisconsin,” she said. “We know what to expect, but we still need to focus on what they are going to generate against us.”
The Badgers are coming off a winning weekend against Michigan State, headlined by a 10-1 win in which they scored all of their runs in one inning.
Schoenly mentioned Wisconsin’s heavy use of small ball, as well as wearing down pitchers by strategically putting the ball in play.
“They have a very unique brand of softball,” she said. “They do a lot of base stealing, a lot of hit-and-runs, a lot of squeezes, so we have to be on our toes nonstop.”
Nine Badgers on the roster bat left-handed, giving the lineup the opportunity to take advantage of bunting, slap hitting and its overall speed. For OSU’s pitching staff, this week’s practices will be dedicated to preparing to stop its opponents’ agility.
“We’re going to have to take their speed away with strikeouts. We’ve got to get to work,” Schoenly said.
Wisconsin sophomore Kelsey Jenkins is hitting .410, while junior Chloe Miller has racked up 32 RBIs. Last season, Jenkins started every game and led the team in home runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Miller added two team highs of her own in RBIs and doubles.
Following in Jenkins’ footsteps is catcher Melanie Cross, who is having her own stellar freshman year. Cross was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week on Monday after batting .500 in the Badgers’ past five games, including a 3-for-4, two-RBI performance in their loss to the Spartans on Saturday.
From the circle, Wisconsin falls near the middle of the Big Ten in overall ERA, but the duo of junior Kirsten Stevens and senior Taylor-Paige Stewart have combined for 117 strikeouts. Like last weekend against Maryland, the Buckeyes will face another left-hander when batting against Stevens, who was named the Southern Conference Pitcher of the Year last season at Mercer prior to transferring.
Before facing OSU on Friday, the Badgers are scheduled to go head-to-head against South Dakota on Wednesday in their home opener. This game will give Schoenly and the Buckeyes one last chance to scout the Badgers before heading to Madison, Wisconsin, to take them on for themselves.
“What’s nice is that we don’t have any midweek games this week, so we can fully focus on what they’re going to do,” Schoenly said.
Top of the conference
Four Big Ten teams pulled off sweeps of their opponents last weekend, but OSU’s strong tournament showings and domination of Maryland have sent it to the top of the conference for the first time this season. Schoenly said she was impressed not only by the run her team is on but also by who stepped up against Maryland, especially the players who generated more than just singles.
“We’re showing a ton of power, and I hope we can continue with a lot more of these doubles, triples and home runs,” she said.
This commanding offense might be the key to staying atop the conference. The Buckeyes have finished the past two seasons in sixth place in the Big Ten, but Schoenly said she sees promise in her players to remain on top as the season progresses.
“I’d rather be No. 1 than not,” she said. “We’re feeling good, and the girls have a lot of confidence, which I think breeds winning.”
After their trip to Wisconsin, the Buckeyes are scheduled to return to Buckeye Field on April 6 for a doubleheader against Penn State in another Big Ten contest, which is set to begin at 4 p.m.