Comparing individual classes of recruits can be a very challenging exercise. Due to each school’s different position each year and internal standards, classes can vary from mid-teens to over 30 signees for a given class at a given school. Last year I introduced my best take on the subject with the Nth best recruit approach.
Nth best recruit takes each player in a class and gives them a rating from 0-99 and then places those rankings in order, high to low. This way you can see how one class compares to another at each level. With Jabril Peppers in the mix, Michigan is going to compete with everyone at the top of the class but then drop into very good range as the recruits progressively move from high four star territory (Drake Harris) to high three star (Brandon Watson) with former gray shirt candidate Brady Pallante pulling in the final spot.
One change for this year is that I have normalized the classes so that they all show how the class is dispersed as if they were a 25 person class. You lose the quantity estimate, but over time, the spread of recruit’s rankings are more indicative of a team’s recruiting prowess than the number of offers they have in a year. If Michigan had five more offers, the odds are their curve would look very similar to what it does now.
*All signee lists were updated as of late Tuesday night and don’t reflect any signing day action
Michigan Under Hoke
Michigan’s last three classes have been highly consistent in terms of recruit quality from top to bottom. Last year’s class was the strongest through the top half and this year’s class is nearly identical in ratings to 2012’s class with Pepper’s the welcome exception.
On an average basis, Michigan’s classes have landed them roughly in lower part of the top 10 nationally. The improvement in these classes will begin to show up this year as my prior studies have shown that player in their third year or more on campus are far and away the biggest predictors of success. The 2012 class enters that zone this year and Michigan should move near the top 10 in terms of overall roster talent+experience this season and move into the top 10 indefinitely beginning in 2015.
The Big Ten
Leaders Legends East!
After a very close comparison last season, Michigan’s 2014 class is clearly lower rated than Ohio State’s. Michigan’s class falls behind immediately after Peppers and maintains a similar gap until the final few players.
Michigan sill is quite a bit ahead of the rest of the division. Penn St and Michigan St are in the next tier. There is a consistent gap between them and Michigan and Penn St’s class is currently slightly higher rated than Sparty’s across the first few spots.
The top third of Maryland’s class is in line with Michigan St and Penn St but they quickly fall into line with the bottom tier of Rutgers and Indiana.
The Race For #1
The five teams rated highest on most services
The bottom half of all the great classes this year are virtually in distinguishable from each other, except for Tennessee. While the Volunteers have put together a really nice class, this chart helps expose the formulas used by all the major services for team rankings. Tennessee is rated no lower than sixth overall by any of the four major services and although they have a very good class, you can see the separation between the great classes and theirs. Getting a giant class isn’t about being better at recruiting, it’s about having a fluky roster situation. Almost all coaches are going to recruit to their 85 (or more) roster spots so having more commitments is vastly overrated.
Ohio State has the weakest top end of all the four serious contenders but the middle third of their class is as good as anyone’s. Texas A&M’s class shows a big drop after the marquee headliners. LSU is strong throughout but Alabama, once again, clearly has the class from top to bottom. If you take any spot along the line of 25, the Alabama point is rarely behind any other team and no one is as consistently strong as they are.
Michigan’s Hall of Highly Touted
In the past two classes, Brady Hoke has inked eleven players that made the first or second team for Michigan’s Hall of Highly Touted.* After two loaded classes, this year’s smaller class was also lighter on top rated talent. Drake Harris cracked the second team as a wide receiver while all-everything signee Jabril Peppers was a no-brainer first team defensive back.
Peppers scored a 96.5 out of a possible 99 (unanimous #1 rated recruit) which makes him the highest rated recruit at Michigan in the internet era of recruiting. When you expand the field beyond Michigan to the whole Big Ten, Peppers comes in at #2 behind Terrelle Pryor (97.9) for highest rated Big Ten signee over the last 12 classes.
*The top players based on composite recruitindg rankings
SO, YOU’RE 8-1 IN BIG TEN PLAY SO FAR…
While it is true that we followed what was our best shooting performance (albeit by 0.48% in terms of effective field goal percentage) with our worst in conference play to date, I will say that I will take 8-1 in Big Ten play into the Second Stretch Of “AHHHHHH!” on the schedule. After all, nobody ever said it was easy and although we were favored yesterday, there was some apprehension all the same given where it was being played.
In any case, the averages in conference play are beginning to moderate as expected between tougher games and such, but they are still looking quite good overall. At this point, we might be able to look at a couple things as concerning, but perhaps not in the sense that we should be alarmed at present. The summary averages for conference play as of yesterday afternoon postgame:
Field Goal %
Three Point %
Free Throw %
Off. Rebound %
Def. Rebound %
Assist / Turnover Ratio
True Shooting %
Free Throw Rate
Points / Possession
Of the four factors, the only one in which we typically perform worse than our opponent is offensive rebound percentage. The roughly 6% margin here translates to about three offensive rebounds on average per game, at least in this case. Michigan averages about seven offensive rebounds per game, whereas our opponents have been averaging about ten per game. Otherwise, our effective field goal percentage, despite taking a hit yesterday, is significantly better, and we also get to the line quite a bit more as evidenced by the average free throw rate.
There is less than a 1% difference in average turnover percentage, so essentially the battle here is a draw. We give up about as many as we get – the raw average is about 10 turnovers per game by Michigan to 11 by our opponents in conference play. It won’t shock anyone, however, if I say that this last game was not in the upper half of performances in conference play, but it certainly was not the worst. That was the Purdue game, which we won.
THE LAST FIVE GAMES:
I made Michigan’s numbers the line graph (the blue line, naturally) on this one so the trend and comparison is perhaps more evident. Let me know if this is not the case.
Here are the four factors over the last five games –
Other statistics of note –
Greetings, lacrosse faithful. It's snowing outside and we're much closer to the memory of minus-13 temperatures than the technical start of spring, but it's time for spring sports anyway. (Perhaps this is part of the reason the South is picking up on lacrosse faster than real Big Ten schools.) Since the official season opener is just a week away, and Michigan scrimmaged Marquette just today, here's a look at the opponents Michigan will face this season in stickyball sport. Some are familiar by now, some are not.
A word on the landscape, which changed this year as it does every year in lacrosse. Michigan's conference, the ECAC, lost two of its best teams (Denver and Loyola) and is down to five schools from eight (Hobart left for the NEC) and in its last year of existence. Despite dropping below six members, the ECAC retains its tourney autobid due to a grace-period rule. The tourney has expanded to 18 teams to accommodate the higher number of autobids - the ACC and the newly formed Atlantic Sun now earn them. 10 autobids and 8 at-large spots are at stake. Not that this affects Michigan much, but it has the practical benefit of expanding the at-large field by one since the ACC champ always took an at-large.
So Michigan will play a four-game ECAC schedule and, depending on how things go, could have a shot at actually making the four-team ECAC tourney, since only one team will be left out. Michigan will also play four of their five future Big Ten rivals. Below is a guide to the grid in each team's section:
|Preseason rank||Media poll and USILA coaches poll, respectively|
|2013 computer||LaxPower's computer ranking, out of 63 teams|
|2013 result||What happened when we played them|
|2013 O-rating||see below|
|2013 D-rating||see below|
The O-rating and D-rating are concoctions of my own devising, similar to a KenPom number. They represent goals per game of 100 possessions (50 each.) I threw some tempo-free stats into a formula, adjust for schedule, and come up with a number. The national raw average was 15.33 last year, highest in any of the years I've tracked these stats. Top and bottom quartiles are roughly above 16.5 and below 13.5.
Right then, on with the show.
Penn State - Sat., February 8 - Away
|2013 result||L, 11-5|
|2013 O-rating||15.75 (22nd)|
|2013 D-rating||11.97 (5th)|
Penn State had a really good season last year til it got derailed in the tournaments. They beat Denver, lost in OT to Notre Dame and Ohio State, and ran roughshod over the CAA until being upset in the CAA final by Towson and the NCAA opener by Yale. They relied heavily on a pair of 40-goal scorers, one of which is back this. That's T.J. Sanders, a pure scorer and deadly sniper who scored on over 40% of his shots. Seniors Shane Sturgis and Tom LaCrosse (clearly born for this, although he can probably never visit Quebec) bring very good secondary scoring. PSU also has a top-notch goalie in Austin Kaut.
The defense will be very strong, and the presence of Sanders and Kaut explain why the media thinks they're one of only two teams in the country worthy of being mentioned with the ACC. (In the preseason polls, the six ACC teams are in the top eight and top seven.) Michigan plays this game and the Ohio game for the Creator's Trophy, and PSU looks like the favorite to win it.
Mercer - Fri., February 14 - Home
|2013 O-rating||13.06 (51st)|
|2013 D-rating||19.38 (60th)|
Michigan is dipping heavily into the Atlantic Sun for opponents this year, probably in an effort to find a win or two. Mercer is the first of three teams from this conference we'll face. They've basically been awful since the inauguration of their program, but four wins is three more than they've had in a season in their history, and they're picked third of six in the A-Sun. Dangermen include 30-goal scorers Chris Baxa and Zack Ward at attack, and goalie Mike Nugent came up with a solid .553 save percentage despite an extremely porous defense in front of him. As Michigan was a meager 1-13 last year, this'll be the first decent indicator of how much our team has improved. Astute fans will remember this was the first team we ever beat, back in 2012.
Detroit - Wed., February 19 - Neutral
|2013 result||Rained out|
|2013 O-rating||12.37 (54th)|
|2013 D-rating||14.86 (26th)|
The Titans were sort of the anti-Penn State last year - mired in a lousy losing season, they snuck into the MAAC tournament as the 4th seed and then won it by upsetting Marist and then Siena, the latter in overtime. Then they went to the NCAAs and damn near knocked off 2-seed Notre Dame, actually holding a 7-3 lead after three periods.
Last year's game was washed out by a lightning storm, but Michigan was holding their own, down 4-3 in the second when the game was called. UDM will be a relatively tough out this year, though. Their defense was highly respectable for a low-major team and though they lost most of the top names from that unit, the offense is at full strength with their entire scoring core returning. They'll add Shayne Adams to that, who medically redshirted last season after starting with 10 goals in 4 games. The Titans are tied with Siena as favorites to win their conference and have a head start in the battle for state supremacy.
Johns Hopkins - Sat., February 22 - Away
|2013 result||L, 17-8|
|2013 O-rating||16.79 (14th)|
|2013 D-rating||11.17 (1st)|
We used to play this game because John Paul and Dave Pietramala are tight; now it's just as much thanks to future conference affiliation. We'll just have to get used to losing to the Hop for a while. The pollsters don't think they're among the elite teams this year, mainly due to losing their outstanding goalie and most of their scoring, but they're still Hopkins. And they've got Wells Stanwick, the youngest son of a very large and ridiculously lacrosse-blooded family. Wells, and I hate to say this, gives his older brother Steele a run for his money in the talent department, and Steele was a Tewaaraton winner. There might be one in Wells's future, too.
Cornell - Sat., March 1 - Home
|2013 O-rating||20.35 (4th)|
|2013 D-rating||11.94 (4th)|
As with Hopkins, the voters predict a fall; Cornell, too, loses a ton of scoring talent, possibly the most in the country as they'll no longer have Rob Pannell or Steve Mock. They're also finding their way with a new coach, as the fairly successful Ben DeLuca was fired in the fall in the wake of a hazing scandal. (Apparently it's no longer OK to make freshmen drink til they puke.) The Big Red will be the highest-profile visitors to visit Ann Arbor depending on your take on Maryland, and they still have scoring punch in Connor Buczek and Matt Donovan, so despite the predicted precipice and likely bubble-team-at-best status, Michigan will still have all it can handle and more.
High Point - Wed., March 5 - Away
|2013 result||L, 13-10|
|2013 O-rating||12.00 (58th)|
|2013 D-rating||18.91 (58th)|
With two big uglies out of the way, Michigan heads south to once again take on the Atlantic Sun. Quite probably the most disappointing result of last season was a 13-10 loss to brand-new High Point, so this can work as another benchmark game to check improvement. The Panthers have started this season with an uncompetitive loss to lately-disappointing Delaware, so hope exists. The offense is mainly keyed by playmaker Matt Thistle and finisher Dan Lomas, but it's not a high-powered one by any stretch. This is the best chance up to this point in the season for a win.
Furman - Sat., March 8 - Away
A two-game southern swing concludes in South Carolina, where Michigan again takes on a brand-new program. Being brand-new, there's not much to go on in terms of evaluation, but, being brand-new, they probably stink. They're almost entirely freshmen plus a tiny number of juco transfers and one or two D-I transfers. Still, the High Point game last year is a cautionary tale. Michigan should win, but should still be wary because reasons.
Bellarmine - Sat., March 15 - Away
|2013 result||L, 12-6|
|2013 O-rating||12.11 (57th)|
|2013 D-rating||12.12 (7th)|
This could be the most important game of the year. Of the various accomplishments by which a team measures success, the most accessible to Michigan is a berth in the ECAC tournament. It's not much of an accomplishment - five teams for four spots - but the tourney atmosphere and travel (to scenic Columbus) would be good for a growing team.
Beating just one conference team would probably do it, as anyone you beat would have to win twice to pass you, and this is the most likely spot for it. It's not easy - Bellarmine has a well-deserved reputation as a strong defensive squad. Neither is it insurmountable. The Knights lose an outstanding goalie and most of their already-anemic scoring to graduation. This is the first conference game of the year and the last time facing them as a conference foe - although, since the Knights are off to the A-Sun next year (which by then will be the SoCon) and we seem to like that conference, and furthermore as Louisville is relatively convenient to Ann Arbor, I would bet it's not the last we'll see of them.
Maryland - Tue., March 18 - Home
|2013 O-rating||18.36 (9th)|
|2013 D-rating||12.26 (8th)|
Without looking at sports I don't pay attention to (so there's a fair chance I'm off my rocker here) this is the first time Michigan will face Maryland in anything since the announcement of their move to the B1G. I guess we'll have to get used to seeing them around. I don't have to like it.
Because the B1G chose to start lacrosse by inviting two powerhouses rather than wait until more schools (MSU, Northwestern, whoever) started up their programs, Michigan will probably find itself fighting with Rutgers to stay out of the basement for the foreseeable future. But that will be then. This is now. Maryland will bring a team that'll be very tough to score on, with a standout netminder in Niko Amato behind a veteran defense. Typically the Terps have relied on balanced scoring rather than a big superstar for their offense, but most of their depth graduated, leaving Mike Chanenchuk and Jay Carlson as the only double-digit goal-scorers from last year. There's still a formidable talent gap, though, and I expect Maryland's defense to be among the very best nationally, if not tops.
St. Joseph's - Sat., March 22 - Home
|2013 result||W, 11-8|
|2013 O-rating||10.95 (61st)|
|2013 D-rating||18.53 (54th)|
St. Joe's is not a fully-funded team, so this year they've moved out of the CAA into a conference more their speed. This was Michigan's only win of last season; the Hawks are historically awful, though improving somewhat under a new coach the past two years. They had one of the nation's worst offenses last year and only four players with double-digit goals, but at least all of those players are back. Still, they'll likely be as usual, which is to say, a threat to lose to an A-Sun team.
Air Force - Sat., March 29 - Away
|2013 result||L, 10-6|
|2013 O-rating||15.55 (26th)|
|2013 D-rating||14.45 (21st)|
The Falcons have just about been the picture of average lately, with a 7-7 record last year, 6-7 the year before that, and sitting right near the top of the bell curve in O- and D-ratings. This year, with Denver and Loyola out of the picture, they're a decent possibility as a contender for the ECAC title, with all major scoring contributors returning. Mike Crampton is the top player with 34 goals and 19 assists, and Tommy McKee is an excellent finisher as well while Keith Dreyer performs well as a setup man.
Air Force, somewhat interestingly, is the only ECAC team left without a landing spot after the conference's dissolution, but rumor has it they'll follow Bellarmine into the A-Sun/SoCon. As for this year's game, though, they're a likely bet to knock off Michigan, especially in the altitude.
Fairfield - Sat., April 5 - Home
|2013 result||L, 10-8|
|2013 O-rating||14.98 (34th)|
|2013 D-rating||15.69 (31st)|
The ECAC coaches figured Fairfield as the team most likely to challenge Ohio for the conference title, but it's really very close between them and Air Force. There's not a lot of difference between the two teams. Goaltending is about the same, and Fairfield only loses one of their offensive core. The top returning scorer is Jordan Greenfield with 34 goals.
In fact, if forced at gunpoint, I'd give the slight nod to Air Force, not Fairfield, which fared slightly worse in all the metrics and was Michigan's closest loss last season. With the game at home, this should be the conference game in which the Wolverines have the second-best chance, after Bellarmine. It's probably not close to a 50/50 chance, but maybe 25/75?
Ohio State - Sat., April 12 - Away
|2013 result||L, 17-8|
|2013 O-rating||17.65 (11th)|
|2013 D-rating||13.80 (19th)|
Ohio was the bloody obvious pick for the final ECAC championship; last year, they played their way to a 3-seed in the NCAA tournament. The spirited, close game that Michigan played against them in 2012 gave way to a blowout loss last season, and Ohio even shed some of its snail's reputation and played at a tempo just slightly below average.
All-American attackman Logan Schuss is gone, but midfielder Jesse King has a chance to be just as good, posting a 32-goal, 23-assist season in 2013. He's joined in the midfield by Turner Evans (26 goals) and playmaking attackman Carter Brown (27 goals, 16 assists) should be able to step into Schuss's shoes somewhat. Goalie Greg Dutton regressed somewhat last year after a very good 2012 season, but he's a four-year starter all the same.
It'll probably be a while before Michigan is ready to challenge the Buckeyes. Whether they can stay among the country's best teams remains to be seen (the pollsters are fairly divided on their quality), but coach Nick Myers has them in good position to do so. These guys are a symbol of the spreading-out of the power in lacrosse that's been going on the past few years.
Yale - Sat., April 19 - Home
|2013 O-rating||16.47 (17th)|
|2013 D-rating||11.98 (6th)|
The Elis have been on a slow and steady rise, and they've placed themselves this year as one of the Ivy's top contenders. Princeton is back on top in the polls after a longish (for them) absence, but Yale is the reigning champs; they then knocked off Penn State in the NCAAs and came within a whisker of doing the same to Syracuse.
So Cornell has the bigger name, but Yale is likely to be the best Ivy League team Michigan faces. They had a trio of 30-goal scorers last year, and two - attackmen Brandon Mangan and Conrad Oberbeck - are back this season. FOGO Dylan Levings won almost 60% of his faceoffs last year. Yale also had an excellent defense last year. In recent years, they've occupied a rung in the Ivy League one notch below Cornell and Princeton, but they're going to make some national noise and could be perhaps the 2nd or 3rd-toughest opponent we see this year.
Robert Morris - Sat., April 26 - Home
|2013 O-rating||15.43 (28th)|
|2013 D-rating||16.09 (37th)|
Unless Michigan reaches the ECAC tourney, we've reached the end of the journey. RMU was known for a powerful, up-tempo offense a couple years ago, but that reputation has eroded away somewhat. They're still up-tempo, and they had five 20-goal scorers last year (fairly rare for a low-major team) but only two of those players remain. Obviously, by the time we get to this game we'll have a much better idea of this matchup, but from here it looks at least passably winnable.
Here's a quick-reference table of the schedule's O- and D-ratings. Michigan is at the bottom.
For Michigan's part, that's a step back on offense but a slight improvement on defense.
However, I think there are more winnable games on this schedule than last year, if only because Denver and Loyola are gone and the A-Sun features so heavily. Other people smarter than me can probably preview the team itself, but let's just assume a reasonable amount of improvement and then divide the schedule like so:
Doom: Penn State, Hopkins, Cornell, Maryland, Ohio State, Yale
Not real likely: Air Force
OKish chance: Fairfield
Fair chance (but don't get your hopes too high yet): Detroit, Bellarmine, Robert Morris
Possibly favored: Mercer, High Point, Furman, St. Joseph's
Last year I predicted reasonable improvement, too, and called for three wins, and that worked out not very well. This year the schedule looks more like an hourglass. Six games against top national teams, and seven against teams potentially within striking distance. Not having goalie Gerald Logan is gonna suck, but even so, let's put on the optimism hat and call it a four-win season. Even if it has to come by feasting on the southern schools, it'd be a step in the right direction.
Hello again, internet,
I conducted a survey this past week (started on Monday) about how people expected Michigan to perform over any given 20 year period. A big thank you goes out to the 328 MGoUsers who pitched in their opinions. Here are your results. I was going to do fancy stuff like trendlines and variance, but then I got lazy. Sorry.
Each survey question's graph is linked in each section's title, and the analysis lies below each image. I've also included the actual results over the past 20 years (1994-2013).
Average Expected: 1.92
Over Last 20 Years: 1
Analysis: The six people who expect a national championship every year do sway the average a bit, but still, this seems high to me. I put 1, but honestly expect 1 every 30-40 years. Of course, I started being a fan in 2008, so my maize-colored glasses are pretty transparent.
Average Expected: 7.84
Over Last 20 Years: 5
Analysis: I guess this is reasonable. I do think Ohio takes the lion's share of the titles, but we should be a clear 2nd, and closer to 1st than 3rd. As much as I love Michigan, I can't get over the recruiting advantage that OSU has. MSU's emergence and persistance and the addition of Nebraska do lower my expectation a bit, as well.
Average Expected: 10.70
Over Last 20 Years: 7
Analysis: Putting in the 2013 data point was tough, man. Luckily, we're not too far off splitting, despite The StreakTM. I still think Ohio has the edge here because of recruiting, but we should be close to even. Beat Ohio.
Average Expected: 14.25
Over Last 20 Years: 12
Analysis: Works for me, 3 every 4. Unless Narduzzi never leaves. Which fuck.
Average Expected: 18.41
Over Last 20 Years: 15/16 (didn't play 4 of the years)
Analysis: Again, I became a fan in 2008. I fully expect to beat Minnesota all of the time.
Average Expected: 9.58
Over Last 20 Years: 6.04*
*For this, I collected all of the recruiting team rankings from the 4 major recruiting services (247, Scout, Rivals, ESPN) and found out how many #1 B1G finishes we had for as long as the service was tracking it. Note that 3 of the services' first team rankings were in 2002, and ESPN started in 2006. I then projected our average amount of #1 finishes over 20 years, and then calculated the average over the 4 services.
Analysis: Many people will say (and did say in the survey comments) that conference position doesn't matter, and there's an argument there, sure. I've typed out and deleted a few sentences defending it, but I'm too lazy to start an argument against. Just look at the data, meh.
CONCLUSION: Everyone is unreasonable except me. I'd love to run a similar survey for the other schools' fanbases, but that is an effort for another day.
Michigan Softball 2014 Season Preview
Michigan topples ASU at the WCWS in 2013. MGoBlue.com
Starting in just a few short days, the University of Michigan softball team will begin its 37th season, the 30th with sure-fire Hall of Fame coach Carol Hutchins at the helm. With not a single losing season in school history and an active streak of six straight Big Ten Championships, the Wolverines always expect to succeed at the highest levels. After returning to the Women’s College World Series last season following a three-year hiatus, expectations are as high as ever, with the team looking to improve on its fifth place finish in Oklahoma City.
Below I plan to take a look at Team 37 from a variety of different angles. I’ll start with the major departures from last season and new players expected to contribute in 2014. Then I’ll work through the pitching, batting, and defense before taking a broad view of the season as a whole. By the end I hope you’ll agree with me that there’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to this year’s edition of the Michigan softball team!
Despite the small size of last year’s senior class, they had a big impact on the success of team 36. Without question the departure that will be felt most obviously on the scoresheet is that of Ashley Lane. Lane delivered a stellar senior year with a career high .363 batting average, an on-base percentage over .400 and 18 homers. Caitlin Blanchard and Sierra Romero were the only Wolverines with 100+ who had higher batting averages, and only Romero had more long balls (the next-highest total was 10, from Lauren Sweet). Replacing Lane’s power will be one of the key challenges that this year’s team will have to meet in order to match last year’s performance.
Amy Knapp was one of the more unsung heroes on last year’s team, but she also leaves a hole in the line-up, taking her excellent defense at the third-base position with her along with a .317 batting average. For a Michigan team that struggled with fielding last year, it will be important to find someone to step up at the hot corner. Jaclyn Crummey was primarily a pinch-runner, although she batted quite well in her limited opportunities. Pitcher Stephanie Speierman, the fourth and final member of the senior class only saw limited action, coming in as a reliever on six occasions.
The senior class left with four consecutive Big Ten Championships and 195 wins to only 44 losses.
While the seniors will be missed, Michigan softball is a program for which the cliché about reloading instead of rebuilding is absolutely true. Four new players join the team as freshmen this season, and they will be expected to contribute from day one. As MGoSoftball has already put together great recruiting profiles on three of these players, I’m going to link them here:
Megan Betsa, RHP: http://mgoblog.com/mgoboard/hello-megan-betsa-sb
Abby Ramirez, IF: http://mgoblog.com/mgoboard/hello-abby-ramirez-sb
Kelly Christner, OF: http://mgoblog.com/mgoboard/hello-kelly-christner-sb
Michigan also adds another IF in Lindsay Montemarano for whom I didn’t see a profile. Some info on the one-time UCLA verbal can be found here http://wantagh.patch.com/groups/schools/p/seaford-softball-star-signs-with-michiganand a fairly fluffy interview from MGoBlue.com is available here http://www.mgoblue.com/sports/w-softbl/spec-rel/111913aab.html.
It’s clear that all of these players have the potential to contribute early on, especially pitcher Megan Betsa (of whom more below).
In addition to the freshmen, Michigan will also be looking for several players who played only sparingly last season to step up and take on a bigger role this season. One name that has come up a number of times in this regard, including in a recent interview with Hutchins herself, is sophomore utility-player Kelsey Susalla. Susalla only saw relatively limited action last season, appearing in 35 games, mostly as a substitute (she had nine starts, all but one at 1B). She made the most of her opportunities, however, hitting .315 with 5 homers and 24 RBIs in just 54 at-bats. When Michigan needed a spark last season, Susalla was often the one to come in off the bench and pinch hit, appearing in some very high-pressure situations. We can expect to see a lot more of Susalla at the plate as she looks to bring some added punch to a Michigan line-up looking to replace Lane’s power.
In the Circle
If everything goes according to plan for the Wolverines, the pitching staff could well end up being one of the biggest strengths of this team. While Michigan struggled defensively at times last season (finishing 41st in the nation in team ERA at 2.34, a tolerable but not elite mark), they return two upperclassmen pitchers with the potential to have great seasons alongside highly-touted freshman Megan Betsa (see MGoSoftball’s profile, linked above).
The two returning pitchers are juniors Haylie Wagner & Sara Driesenga, both of whom have experience as the ace of the staff. Wagner started her Michigan career in stellar fashion two years ago, going 32-7 with a 1.53 era. The southpaw’s 32 wins represent the most by a freshman in Michigan history, breaking the record held by all-time UM great Jordan Taylor. Wagner’s brilliant debut campaign garnered her Big Ten Pitcher of the Year and Big Ten Freshman of the Year recognition.
A back injury prevented Wagner from playing for the first three weeks of the 2013 season, however, and lingering effects appeared to hinder her performance all year long. In the super regionals she was slated to pitch in the deciding game against Louisiana-Lafayette, but aggravated the injury during warm-ups and did not appear again the rest of the season, finishing with a 19-3 record. While her ERA slipped by almost a full run, it is hard to see any long-term cause for concern, as her struggles can largely be attributed to the injury and the missed time associated with it. If Wagner can approach the standard she set for herself in 2012, Michigan will have one of the deadliest pitching staffs in the Big Ten, if not the nation.
Fortunately for the 2013 Wolverines, Wagner’s injury only ended up providing the stage for RHP Sara Driesenga to deliver an impressive sophomore performance. The Hudsonville hurler came to Michigan as a touted recruit, but struggled out of the gate, going only 9-10 in her freshman campaign with an ERA of 2.53, well back of her counterpart. She actually made bigger contributions at the plate, hitting .340 in 103 at-bats, good for second on the team, just .007 behind Big Ten Player of the year Amanda Chidester. Driesenga’s .457 on-base percentage was actually tops on the team in 2012.
The offseason saw a major transformation in Driesenga’s game, however, and one that was badly needed in light of Wagner’s up-and-down year. Driesenga carried a heavy burden in the circle, tying the Michigan record for pitching starts in a season with 41. She set the tone early, tossing the first no-hitter of her college career against Hofstra (a 3-0 7 inning affair on February 23rd) and continued to impress throughout the season. While her offense suffered some, perhaps due to her greater role in the circle, she still reached base over 40% of the time. Meanwhile, her ERA jumped to 1.89, and she only seemed to get stronger as the year went on, throwing complete-game shutouts against Valparaiso, California, and Arizona State in playoff action. In the end, Driesenga finished with a 31-9 record and showed great potential going forward.
In 2014, Michigan has the luxury of two experienced upper-classmen in the circle along with a promising freshman, one Hutch has already spoken about getting involved in the rotation. Presuming that Wagner returns to form after having a whole offseason to fully recover and Driesenga continues her upward trajectory, this pitching staff could well once again be the best in the Big Ten, possibly one of the best in the nation. One item to watch will be how Hutch manages things with three capable pitchers, including two righties and one lefty. Softball pitching staffs are much smaller than baseball ones, often featuring one single pitcher who throws almost all the big games. This has been changing a bit in recent years, though, and Michigan may join the new wave. If all three prove capable, be on the lookout for fewer complete games and more rotation within the Michigan staff. As long as they can provide a solid performance, this team can go far, because as the next section shows, run support should be plentiful indeed.
At the Plate
The conversation about Michigan’s offense can only begin with one name: shortstop Sierra Romero. Romero came in as a highly-touted freshman, reputed to be one of the best in the entire country, and she did not disappoint. In her rookie season, Romero led the Wolverines with a scorching .379 batting average, and slugged .841 with an OBP of .527 (you read that correctly – more than half the time Romero stepped to the plate last season, she ended up on base). In addition to her excellent averages, she hit for power as well, driving home a Michigan single-season record 23 home runs. Romero dazzled start-to-finish en route to winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Big Ten Player of the year honors. If Romero does nothing more than repeat her freshman production, she will still be among the best (if not the best) in the Big Ten, and even incremental improvement would bring her into very rarified air nationally. The national analysts are certainly looking for such a performance, as Romero is one of only six sophomores on the preseason Player of the Year Watch List. Expect opposing pitchers to walk Romero a good deal this season, intentionally or otherwise, as they work to minimize the threat she poses.
Coach Hutch will likely get creative with her line-ups, moving Romero around as she did last year to free her up and prevent defenses from pitching around her. Even so, the responsibility falls to other Michigan batters to provide Romero protection. Last year, this burden was primarily shouldered by Caitlin Blanchard, an excellent hitter for average, packing somewhat less in the way of power (only 4 homers last year) than Romero. Blanchard’s stellar .374 average (.441 on-base) last season provided a great offensive boost as well as protection.
It is important to emphasize, however, as important as these two players are to the Michigan line-up, they are far from the whole story. Among players with 50 or more at-bats last season, almost all had on-base percentages over or close to .400, and Michigan returns six who hit over .300. The one exception is Lauren Sweet, who had a .236 batting average and a .317 on-base as a sophomore. Those middling numbers are extremely misleading in terms of characterizing her season, however. After struggling mightily in the non-conference, the light went on when Big Ten play began and stayed on through the WCWS as Sweet drove home 10 home runs on the season, including several in post-season action. If Sweet can continue playing the way she did the second half of last season, she joins Kelsey Susalla as one of the prime candidates to replace Ashley Lane’s 18 long-balls from last season.
To make a long story short, Michigan returns almost all of the key pieces from a stellar offense last season. Michigan’s 425 runs last year broke the school single-season mark previously held by the 2005 National Championship team, and at 6.64 runs per game, the Wolverines tied for 6th place nationally. Only Oklahoma’s ridiculous 7.80 mark was more than a couple tenths higher. If the Wolverines can find a way to replace Lane’s power (and I think they can with Susalla stepping into a bigger role and Sweet continuing to play at a high level), there is no reason to think that Alumni Field won’t once again house one of the finest offenses in the nation. Incremental improvement from some of the younger players (I can’t believe I’ve gotten this far without mentioning the other freshman standout named Sierra from last season, Sierra Lawrence) and continued leadership from the upperclassmen like Blanchard and the speedy Nicole Sappingfield, we could see one of the best offensive seasons in Michigan history. With apologies to Keith Jackson, if Team 37’s offensive potential doesn’t whet your appetite, then you’re reading the wroooong preview.
In the Field
I will admit that the non-pitching aspects of defense constitute a part of softball that I have a much harder time evaluating, especially with the limited amount of games I get to watch. With little in the way of stats beyond fielding percentage, I only have slim data to work from, so I certainly invite and appreciate corrections and expansions to what I write here (that goes for the whole preview, of course, but especially this section).
That said, a few comments are in order. It is no secret that Michigan struggled defensively at times last year, and fielding was certainly part of that. The Wolverines’ fielding percentage of .959 was exactly in the middle of the NCAA last year at 144th out of 289 teams ranked on the NCAA website and 8th in the Big Ten. For Michigan to reach the elite status they are aiming for this year, there will need to be improvement in this department. Fortunately, there is reason for hope here. If the light went on for Lauren Sweet offensively part way through the season, it did the same for freshman star Sierra Romero on defense. While Romero blazed away at the plate right from the get-go, it took her some time to fully adjust to the speed of the college game in the field, and she turned in a team-high 23 errors on the season. Once the heart of the season rolled around, however, Romero went from sore-spot to strength, making a number of dazzlingly athletic plays. Perhaps the highlight was a play that didn’t quite come off, as late in the season she threw a Jeter-esque laser to first, spinning in mid-air while moving towards third from her shortstop position. While the throw came up just short of getting the runner, it demonstrated a level of athleticism, confidence, and comfort in her role that in seldom seen in college softball.
As for the rest of the defense, Michigan loses one of its better fielders in Amy Knapp and a middle-of-the-pack performer in Ashley Lane. With plenty of speed in the outfield, patrolled by Sierra Lawrence and Nicole Sappingfield along with .984 fielder Lindsay Doyle, we should expect most playable balls to be caught in that department. It is difficult for me to make much in the way of a projection here, as opposed to the sections above, but we can certainly identify this area as the biggest point in need of improvement. Raising this number at least into the top third or quarter of the NCAA seems to me to be a key element in Michigan’s push for another Big Ten title and trip to the WCWS.
Now that we’ve looked at the roster and all the different aspects of the team, it’s time to draw things together and make some Bold Predictions. The pollsters are certainly expecting big things out of this team, tabbing the Wolverines as the #5/#4 team in the nation in the preseason polls, with only fellow WCWS teams from last year ahead of them (Tennessee, Oklahoma, Washington, and Florida, in that order in the coaches’ poll; ESPN.com/USA Softball drops Washington to #5, leaving the top 5 otherwise the same). Given all the talent outlined above and the track record of success, it is difficult to argue with the high ranking.
As usual, the Wolverines have given themselves plenty of opportunities to prove their quality in the non-conference portion of the schedule. Opening day features two top-25 opponents in #4/#3 Florida and #25/#23 USF. While there are some cupcakes mixed in as well to get the Wolverines on their feet, the non-conference is littered with big-name teams from down South and out West. As usual, the Judi Garman Classic in Fullerton, CA (Mar. 6-8) will provide a brutal three days, as Michigan looks to take on ASU, Washington, Houston, Arizona, and Texas, three of whom are in the top ten. There are plenty of opportunities here to pick up the sort of quality wins that the NCAA will look kindly upon when deciding who gets to host regionals & super-regionals come tournament time. (As a side note, it should be noted that while opening day is February 8th, Michigan does not play a home game until their final non-conference tune-up on March 18th. The ladies will travel thousands of miles playing top-ten teams all across America, racking up 29 games on the road before getting a chance to play in the friendly confines of the Wilpon Complex. The ability of Carol Hutchins to recruit players with the character to make this journey, to coach teams that succeed under these conditions, and to use this time every single year as a chance to bring the team together through adversity is a huge testament to why she is one of the two or three greatest coaches in the history of the sport).
Once conference play hits, the Wolverines will have a bit of a break, starting with three-game sets against last season’s bottom-feeders Indiana and Penn State. It won’t be until the April 18-20 series in Ann Arbor against the Golden Gophers that Michigan has to face down a team that had a winning record in the Big Ten last season, and they will never have to do so on the road (Wisconsin, the only other team over .500 in the Big Ten that Michigan will face, comes to Ann Arbor in the final series of the season, one which may well have major Big Ten Championship implications). The chuckleheads at Big Ten headquarters decided not to schedule any games between the top two teams from last year, Michigan and Nebraska, both of whom are ranked in the top ten, so we shall have to wait until the post-season to (hopefully) see that heavyweight matchup. It would be difficult to ask for an easier conference slate than Michigan is getting this year, skipping two of the four next-best teams and getting the other two at home, while only travelling to face teams that went sub-.500 last year, both in terms of conference play and overall. Nebraska, the top competition in the conference and the only Big Ten team to beat Michigan in the regular season a year ago, meanwhile, has to face all three of Minnesota, Northwestern, and Wisconsin, getting only the Gophers at home, and misses out on miserable Penn State.
What, then, for overall expectations? I don’t have to go too far out on a limb to say that I expect great things from this team. With one of the best offenses in the country, highly-recruited talent in the circle, a ton of experience returning, and one of the greatest coaches of all time running the show, there is no reason Michigan can’t do very, very well this year. While there will be a few stumbling blocks on the way (staying perfect in a season with well over 50 games is unrealistic, obviously), I expect Michigan to pick up a few quality wins in the non-conference schedule and come into the Big Ten season still sporting a top-ten ranking. Six straight Big Ten Titles will probably become seven, as no one in the Big Ten can match Michigan’s talent. Nebraska is an up-and-coming team and may provide a challenge, but in my estimation their tougher schedule will probably doom them to a strong second-place showing. Michigan will once again host a regional and probably a super-regional as well and will go all the way to the WCWS. Once there, it’s all but impossible to predict what will happen, especially given my limited knowledge of the rest of the field. Two years ago, though, when Wagner and Driesenga came on the scene with Romero in the pipeline, I said that I thought 2014 and 2015 would be Michigan’s best chances at another National Championship for some time. Nothing in the interim has changed my mind. I am usually extremely cautious and unwilling to jinx anything, but I truly believe that Michigan will once again be the best team in the Big Ten and among the nation’s elite. Winning it all is a lofty goal, but it is well within reach. The season can’t start soon enough!
It's about time we have some new Michigan basketball wallpapers. Last year, I made a couple intricate ones of a "throwback" roster photo an Atlanta-themed one come tourney time. Recently, I wanted to make something bold and simple, but that would also tie into this year's team.
Behold WE WORK. I've made one for desktops (widescreen and fullscreen), plus an iPad version that is built to rotate with your device and another for the iPhone. You can download all of them HERE.
As always, if you have any ideas for other wallpapers, post in the comments and I'll make others throughout the rest of the season.