The Michigan Wolverines enter the 2005 Big Ten Softball Tournament as the top-seed and host for the eighth time in 11 years. The No. 1 team in the country for the past two months, the Maize and Blue claimed the Big Ten title with a two-game series sweep on the Northwestern Wildcats at Ann Arbor's Alumni Field on the last weekend of the regular season.
In their two meetings this season, the Wolverines defeated their intrastate rivals by comfortable margins. In the first game, junior Jennie Ritter threw a five-inning shutout allowing only three hits and recording strikeouts against nine of the 18 batters she faced. Junior second baseman Tiffany Haas went 2-3 including two runs scored and an RBI. The Wolverines won the game 8-0.
In the second game Ritter again went the five-inning distance striking out seven and allowing a single run, while distributing four hits. Freshman first baseman Samantha Findlay led the way offensively for the Wolverines, going 2-2 with a pair of runs scored and a walk. Michigan State shortstop Traci Nicosia recorded the Spartans' only RBI by driving in Elizabeth Peterson. With the 9-1 victory, Ritter moved to 24-1 on the year.
Despite the success the Wolverines have had over the Spartans this season, the Michigan State squad does have history on its side. In the 2004 tournament, the eighth seeded MSU team knocked off the top-seeded Michigan Wolverines 5-1 to eliminate the Maize and Blue from the tournament. MSU went on to win the tournament title on their rival's home field.
The Michigan roster leads like a who's who of the nation's elite. Senior shortstop Jessica Merchant and junior pitcher Jennie Ritter are both among the 10 finalists for the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Award. Merchant is batting .379 on the year with a team-high .757 slugging percentage. Her 17 homeruns ties for the team lead and her three triples are the most for any Wolverine this year. She is second on the team in runs scored, hits, RBI, and on-base percentage.
Haas and senior Nicole Motycka are also towards the top of all team categories. Seven Wolverines are batting above .300 this year and as a team, the Maize and Blue is batting .324. Findlay has also contributed for U-M, batting .351 and belting 17 homeruns. Her .750 slugging percentage is the second best on the team.
Ritter was named the 2005 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, and she is towards the top of conference standings in most of the pitching statistics. Her 0.93 ERA is third in the conference, behind teammates Nicole Motycka (0.82) and Lorilyn Wilson (0.88). She is also tied with Iowa's Lisa Birocci with a league-best 26 wins compared to only a single loss, Ritter leads the Big Ten with a .962 winning percentage. Opponents are batting only .141 against her, second lowest in the conference.
The Spartans have been led offensively in 2005 by Victoria Morache. The senior outfielder started all but one game this season and batted .322 while leading the Spartan team in nine offensive categories. Her on-base percentage of .413 and slugging percentage of .456 were MSU bests.
Freshman Caitlin Mahoney also contributed during her first year in East Lansing. Mahoney hit .290 with 46 total bases in 48 games this season. Freshman twin sisters Nikki and Traci Nicosia have provided solid rookie efforts as well, each batting around .250. Traci has scored 13 runs and driven in a team best 32 runs this year. Nikki has scored 21 runs, one shy of the team lead.
In the circle, sophomore Rachel Turney has led the way. With a 1.88 ERA, Turney has won 14 games this season and struckout 160 compared to just 54 walks. With 18 complete games in her 30 starts this season, Turney has turned in four complete game shutouts. Batters have compiled a .218 average against Turney this season and she has given up only seven homeruns in 710 at bats.