landing spot. will be interesting to see how he does.
[Bryan Fuller. All the photos in here are. Also Fuller stayed on us 24/7 to get this out.]
A Fast Start That Felt Slow. Michigan softball came into the 2016 season riding a tremendous wave of momentum from their phenomenal 2015 performance that saw them fall just one game short of reaching the sport’s highest glory. The newfound momentum was a mixed blessing however, as it brought with it raised expectations and the pressure that comes hand in hand with success. The 2015 team was able to play free and have fun at every stage, in large part because they were supposed to be good, but not that kind of good. Their record-shattering performances were as much of a surprise to the players as to the fans, and we all went on the crazy ride together. In 2016, by contrast, Michigan came in bearing all the pressure that comes with a #2 pre-season ranking.
Even with all the pressure, if you focus on the win/loss column, Michigan blazed through the non-conference schedule with scarcely a bump in the road. Losses to #1 Florida and to then-top-ten Washington (now #13) are simply things that happen, while the Wolverines piled up plenty of signature Ws, including a pair at the home turf of a now-top-ten Florida State squad and a 16-9 slugfest triumph over Oklahoma that doubled as a Romero-family grudge match. An 8-6 thriller on the home turf of UCLA, the ultimate softball blue-blood, and a merciless 13-0 blasting of Missouri rounded out Michigan’s marquee victories.
Despite the glittering 22-2 record and persistent #2 national ranking, the mood in the softball fanbase was tending towards the restless side. The offense was effective, but had not been able to recapture the free-wheeling, long-bombing swagger of 2015’s “Year of the Pizza” unit. Meanwhile, injuries and official “points of emphasis” combined to hamper Michigan’s top two pitchers. Unquestioned ace Megan Betsa has always been queen of the rise ball, but a renewed emphasis on calling high-rise balls sent her walks through the roof early on, while Sara Driesenga took some time to get back up to speed after missing almost all of 2015 due to injury. Even more concerning was the fact that the loss to Florida was not just a loss, but an 8-0 5 inning mercy-rule shellacking that left many Wolverine fans questioning whether the Maize & Blue would ever be able to challenge the Gators’ national dominance. Worries persisted even into the early stages of the Big Ten season, as the Wolverines opened Big Ten play with a dismal defensive performance, dropping a 13-12 contest to a solid but unremarkable Northwestern squad.
In addition to the quantifiable problems, there was an intangible sense that the 2016 team hadn’t really come together quite yet. Hutch talked in interviews about how the team wasn’t responding well at the beginning of spring practice, and only locked in over time. The pizza-making passion of 2015 had not yet been replaced by any new charming quirks or wacky antics. Even many of the wins felt simply dutiful, rather than joyful. A 3-1 W over a mediocre Virginia Tech team or a 1-0 squeaker over an Illinois State team that would go on to post a losing record in the Missouri Valley Conference felt more ho-hum than hail, hail. The team was still a strong favorites to win the Big Ten and even to retain a super-regional (top-8) seed, but there was a clear need for something more.
[Hit THE JUMP for The Team The Team The Team, The Enemy, The Enemy, The Enemy, and The Hutch The Hutch The Hutch.]
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]
Hutch on cranking the pitching machines up to eleven during a recent practice:
It’s not about making them feel good every day. It’s about how they respond because when the game comes, nobody feels good unless things go your way. We try to make practice harder than the game. I don’t know if we accomplished it. I have no idea. I’ll find out.
All American LF Kelly Christner on the attitude around practice:
Basically every practice, she would be like, ‘You guys have not earned one thing yet,’ Really making us focus on going out every single game no matter who we’re playing, no matter what the situation is, if we’re winning or losing, just really going 100 percent constantly. That’s helped us.
There's some actual talk about progression at the catcher spot and on pitching. Softball opens Friday morning against Virginia Tech in Tampa and plays #1 Florida the next morning.
They may not have an actual accomplishment yet, but expectations cannot get any higher for 2016, and for good reason.