When it comes to Big Ten softball, the Michigan Wolverines and the Gophers have been the class of the league over the past decade.
The Wolverines put together a dynasty with 10 Big Ten regular-season titles in 11 years before the pandemic-shortened season last year. The Gophers, who won three consecutive conference tournament titles from 2016 to '18, were the only team to dethrone Michigan as champions in league play four years ago.
The past two Big Ten teams to reach the NCAA College World Series also were the Wolverines and the Gophers in 2016 and 2019, respectively.
So it's only fitting that the second-place Gophers (25-7) play host to first-place Michigan (29-5) Friday through Sunday to likely decide this year's Big Ten champion.
"It's pretty exciting," said Gophers coach Piper Ritter about the first Michigan-Minnesota regular-season meeting since 2015. "It makes it feel like what it should feel like, playing for something at the end of the year."
Ritter, hired a year ago to replace Jamie Trachsel as coach, would like nothing more than to give her seniors a memorable send-off in the home finale.
Leading hitter MaKenna Partain, Katelyn Kemmetmueller, Carlie Brandt and standout pitcher Amber Fiser all decided to take advantage of the NCAA's extra year of eligibility to return for a fifth season this year.
As juniors, that foursome helped the Gophers reach the program's first NCAA World Series in 2019.
"When you've gone to the College World Series, you've had a lot of pressure on you," Ritter said. "When pressure situations happened, I think they've come up big. It just takes a lot of experience. And I think that's one thing this group has had going to the College World Series and knowing what it takes to get there."
The 2021 season started with the Gophers' first 12 games in Florida before continuing Big Ten play at campus venues March 26. After opening with a 3-3 record in February, the Gophers won 19 of their next 21 games through April 17.
A team with a mixture of youth and veterans showed its potential when the Gophers put together a four-game series sweep over then-Big Ten leader Northwestern on the road in early April.
"That was by far one of the toughest teams we played so far this year," Fiser told reporters last month. "And I think that was huge for all of us."
Fiser, a first-team All-America and Big Ten Pitcher of the Year in 2019, went 10-7 with a Big-Ten high 145 strikeouts before the pandemic shutdown in 2020. She is 12-5 this year, but Fiser shares the load with junior Autumn Pease going 11-1 with a team-best 1.45 ERA.
"If we want to go to the World Series, we're going to need at least two pitchers or more," Fiser said. "It takes a team."
The Wolverines beat Minnesota 3-2 in the last meeting between the two programs for the 2019 Big Ten tournament championship. The Gophers bounced back with five straight wins to reach the World Series.
Wolverines coach Carol Hutchins expects this next meeting to be a "meaningful and very competitive series."
"We haven't seen much of them in the regular season over the last several years," Hutchins said. "We've only seen Amber Fiser once. … We're going to have to beat teams like Minnesota, which is absolutely a team worthy of a top 16 national seed."
With no Big Ten tournament this year, the conference regular-season champion will get an automatic NCAA tournament bid — which normally goes to the tournament champion — and one or two other teams could get at-large bids. That puts even more meaning into the battle of two of the league elite.
The Gophers would overtake Michigan for first place with a four-game sweep or close within .008 in winning percentage with three wins. After this series, both teams have four Big Ten games left.
"We love it," Ritter said, referring to facing the Wolverines. "We think it prepares us for obviously winning the Big Ten and also prepares you for postseason."