In the wake of today's heartbreaker against FSU, I'd like if I may to extend a few "thank you"s here at the end of the 2016 softball season.
First, a massive thank you to all of the players, and especially the seniors. They've given us so much to cheer, shout, and laugh about over the last few years, and did so during a time when not a lot else in the Athletic Department was doing so. We just watched the final performance of Sierra Romero, the best there ever was, but there's a whole team around her as well that has been absolutely outstanding. The magnitude of the disappointment today is 100% a factor of how much they've made us expect of them.
Second, a huge thank you from me personally to MGoBlog. Brian, for giving me the space to publish my pieces about the team here, and Seth & Bryan Fuller for helping me out a lot with my post-season articles. As I've mentioned before, when I was a kid it was always my dream to works in sports media (I wanted to be an announcer, and drove my parents nuts by commentating on my EA Sports video games). My career has gone a different way, but it's been a privilege to get to play around a little with that dream from years ago.
Finally, thank you to all of you nuts who have packed the game threads from day 1 all the way up through the last out in OKC. It's great to have a community here that share my off-beat passion for college softball. We'll all be coming together again pretty soon come February.
Go Blue, and Hail to the Victors.
[Ed-S: We asked SBW to cover one of the best teams in Michigan sports history. Previously: Postseason primer]
All photos from Bryan Fuller
The Ann Arbor regional featured one of the more noteworthy upsets of the opening weekend of the NCAA softball tournament. Fortunately for Michigan, it didn’t happen to us. The Maize & Blue marched through the regional with relative ease, not quite hitting on all cylinders, but never seriously threatened either. Before looking ahead to the upcoming super-regional showdown with the Missouri Tigers, let’s take a quick look back at how Michigan became one of 16 teams in the nation lucky enough to go to practice this week.
The Wolverines started the weekend off against a Valparaiso team still trying to figure out just how they found their way into the tournament in the first place. With a record well below .500, the Horizon League tournament champions were one of the strangest sights in regional play in years. Michigan didn’t wait long to get on the board, with senior super-star Sierra Romero lining what’s known in Ann Arbor as a “Rom-Bomb” over the wall in the first inning. In addition to giving Michigan an early lead, the solo shot gave Romero her 300th career RBI. The Wolverines added a couple more in the 2nd, but were not able to fully solve Valpo’s pitching until the 5th inning, when all Hell broke loose. 5 singles earned Michigan 3 runs and brought about a pitching change. The change didn’t help, as the relief pitcher walked the next three batters on only 14 pitches to drive in the game-ending runs. Megan Betsa was majestic in the circle, ceding just one hit and one walk while piling up 9 Ks in the 8-0 run-rule walkover.
On Saturday, Michigan was expecting a tougher challenge, and they got one from an unexpected source. Instead of the presumptive challenger Notre Dame, the Maize & Blue had to square off against Miami (NTM), who had upset the Irish with a controversial 3-2 win on Friday. Betsa was again phenomenal, but the story of the early part of the game was Redhawks hurler Amber Logemann, who didn’t allow a hit until the 4th inning. In the 4th, though, Michigan showed a tendency familiar to anyone who watched the 2015 NCAA tournament. A good pitcher can get through Michigan’s order once, maybe twice. After that, though, the offense starts to lock in on tendencies & weaknesses, and the runs can come in bunches. 2 runs in the 4th led to 4 more in the 6th, and Michigan finally had the breathing room they wanted. Hutch took advantage of the extra cushion, resting ace Megan Betsa for the rest of the game. After a wobbly start put runners on 2nd and 3rd with no outs, Driesenga retired the next 6 batters she faced on 6 consecutive ground-outs, securing a 6-0 win.
To no one’s surprise, the Irish shook off their Friday funk and emerged from the losers’ bracket to face Michigan in the regional final on Sunday. The Irish have seen their season end in Ann Arbor again and again in recent years, and would need to take 2 in a row from #2 Michigan to avoid the same fate in 2016. Sierra Romero sent a message early on that the “luck of the Irish” wasn’t going to apply in Ann Arbor, getting her money’s worth on her 300th career hit, launching a first-inning long ball for the 2nd time on the weekend (the blast was also good for her 299th career run scored, extending her own NCAA record). Another Sierra home run, this one from Sierra Lawrence, put Michigan up 2-0, but an unexpected blast from Irish lead-off hitter Karley Wester trimmed the lead back down to 1. Again it took a few innings for Michigan’s bats to acquire target-lock, but when the Irish gifted Romero 1st base on an error to start the 5th, the Wolverines were determined to take advantage. A bunt single & a walk loaded the bases, and singles from Aidan Falk and Lindsay Montemarano stretched the lead to 6-1. The Irish would get one back in the 6th, but never seriously threatened to catch up to the heavy favorites.
On the weekend, Michigan outscored their opponents a combined 20-2. On a historical note, Sierra Romero joined the extremely exclusive 300/300 club (hits & RBIs), and moved to just one run away from creating an entirely new 300/300/300 club (hits, RBIs, & runs-scored). For a team of Michigan’s caliber, the victories were expected, and celebrations were moderate compared to scenes around the country. The Wolverines will not be satisfied with anything less than a trip to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series, and they know that just one team stands between them and that goal.
[Hit THE JUMP for a Super-regional preview]
After blowing away Rutgers almost as efficiently as possible yesterday, Michigan faces off against the Scarlet Knights again today. A win would clinch the Big Ten Championship, so you can be the team will be locked in! Driesenga in the circle, let's get this underway.
Michigan walked all over Indiana today, taking home an 8-0 run-rule win in 5 innings. We could talk about the Sierras setting the table time and again, both reaching base in every single opportunity. We could talk about Betsa, who had one of her strongest performances of the season, fanning 9 while conceding no runs. But today, it's all about Carol Hutchins. She stands alone now as the winngest coach in softball history. She'll want to keep the focus on the next game, but we can afford to take a few moments to commemorate one of the greatest achievements in Michigan athletics history. Congratulations, Hutch!
The title seems very premature at first, until the end where Christner and a couple other players are quoted about the sheer volume of leadership Romero has brought to the team in her four years at Michigan, and that her legacy will be the impact she's had on the program independant of statistics and wins.
The author makes the obvious and immediate comparison of Romero to Hutch, and while that's the clearest there are other M connections just as easily made. Personally I got Harbaugh for the player/coach relationship and single minded intensity, Denard for the snowball fights on visits and the majority of us for M love at first sight from an early age.
Definitely worth a read, even if there's way too much unfinished business for a retrospective yet.
Asked about her first impressions of Romero, Falk grins and laughs before giving her answer — an answer that suggests Romero and Hutchins possess the same type of on-the-field presence.
“I was intimidated — hands-down intimidated,” Falk recalls. “She has a very fierce look on her face when she plays, and I was like, ‘Oh, this girl is going to be terrifying.’ ”
Just before Falk finishes, the door opens, and Romero herself walks in. She’s followed by a procession of several teammates, who file in and sit down next to Falk. Romero, though, heads to the side, out of view. As Falk talks about Romero, about her leadership, batting advice and the impromptu dance sessions the two occasionally hold during batting practice, the senior shortstop is within earshot.
When Falk finishes talking, the attention turns to Romero.
At first glance, it’s not clear what had Falk so intimidated. Romero is relatively small in stature, standing at 5-foot-5, and her facial expression is neutral.
She is asked about her mindset going into the fourth at-bat of a recent game against Florida State, after she had struck out three consecutive times, and the room falls silent. Intentional or not, the intimidation Falk recalled is apparent now. The calm vibe of the room is gone, and Romero now stares straight ahead.
“Swing the bat.”
The room remains silent for a couple seconds. Her teammates glance at her, and then break out into laughter.
Sierra Romero is here, and you’ve just been introduced.
[Bumped (and added some photos) because it's good and so is our softball team. --Seth]
Sprinkle the cheese
It’s hard to put the experience of Michigan’s 2015 softball season into words. It was totally unique in so many ways. Michigan fans were desperate for something to go right after hockey, basketball, and football all came up well short of pre-season expectations. Jim Harbaugh was making headlines, but concrete results were still months away, and the Michigan community was still convalescing from its long bout of Brandonitis. It was the perfect time for niche sport to make a bid for mainstream status, as fans needed something, anything to go right, to make things feel like Michigan again.
Into this void stepped a group of twenty young women, swinging bats and making pizza as they blasted their way through the country and the Big Ten, into the record books and Maize and Blue hearts nationwide. The team combined absurd offensive production and strong pitching with an unmatched rootability factor. Whether on TV or in person, this team was fun. When Lauren Haeger’s Gators bounced them in the last game of the season, it felt like an injustice, just like Trey Burke missing out on his crown or the Legend of Shawn Hunwick falling short against Minnesota-Duluth.
The difference between those crimes and this one, however, is that Michigan has a chance to put things right. Almost everyone is back from the 2015 squad, and there’s no question that they’ve been working harder than ever all offseason to earn what was denied them a year ago. It’s a new year with fresh faces and stiff competition, but this is a team on a mission. Below, we’ll break down roster changes, offense and defense, and the opposition Michigan will face in the season ahead. 2016 isn’t going to be 2015 all over again, and Hutch and her crew are smart enough not to try to make it that. It just might be a little bit better.
[Hit THE JUMP to see what that team lost and what to expect from this one]