Softball Super-Regional Preview
Now that we’ve all had a few hours to come down from the gibbering sports-high provided by one of the most phenomenal innings in Michigan softball history, let’s take a look back at the weekend that was and look ahead at Florida State, who stands between Michigan and a return to the Women’s College World Series.
The regional weekend began with a game almost as crazy as the one it ended with. This, of course, is not exactly what you want going up against an SDSU squad that should be overmatched, but Michigan’s pitching was shaky and the Aztecs proved early and often that they were not intimidated by the big stage or the big Michigan name. Michigan actually fell behind early on a home run from a slap hitter before bouncing back to take a two-run lead on the strength of a Sierra Lawrence three-run blast (more from her later!). San Diego State tied it up and chased starter Haylie Wagner shortly thereafter, and the shoot-out was on in earnest. The Wolverines continued to pound away, eventually building up a 7-4 lead which they took into the 7th inning. The wheels came off for the Michigan defense, however, as the Aztecs loaded the bases and scored three runs off of a single (off Betsa), a walk (off Driesenga), and an RBI ground-out (off Wagner, who re-entered the game). Wagner stopped the bleeding there, and no more runs would be scored until the bottom of the ninth. In extra innings, freshman Lindsay Montemarano found herself on third after an error in the outfield turned a single into a triple, and Wagner brought her home with a sky-high sac-fly. After being chased early, Wagner redeemed herself in a big way, and was named player of the game by ESPN.
Saturday started out roughly for the Wolverines, who took an early lead against Arizona State in the winner’s bracket game, but couldn’t hold it as the long ball got to Wagner again. A 4-1 loss sent Michigan to the loser’s bracket, where they faced San Diego State once again. Things went much more to plan in the rematch, as the Maize & Blue mercy-ruled the Aztecs 9-1 (6 inn.) on the strength of a strong outing by freshman Megan Betsa. Betsa scattered a few too many base runners for comfort, but got the outs she needed time and again, earning her first post-season win. The highlight of the game, however, was provided by sophomore phenom Sierra Romero. Although she struggled (by her standards, at least) throughout the weekend due to flu-like symptoms, seeing her sparkling .510 batting average dip to … a still sparkling .487, she showed why she still belonged on the field, crushing a grand slam that put Michigan up by 7. The Aztecs proved a spirited team all weekend, but just couldn’t hold up in the end against the barrage of Michigan hitting.
The drubbing of SDSU sent Michigan into the Regional Final needing to win back-to-back games against host Arizona State and their National Player of the Year candidate Dallas Escobedo. In short, the stage was set for a day of softball that Michigan fans will never forget. Early on, it looked to be more of the same from Saturday, as starting pitcher Megan Betsa was chased in the first inning after handing the Sun Devils a two-run lead. Haylie Wagner entered the circle after that, and would not be moved out the rest of the day, making a slew of great pitches and reminding Michigan fans of why she was billed as the ace of the staff. Romero, while vomiting on the bench between innings, still somehow managed to jack a 2-run shot to tie the game in the bottom of the first. After that, her offense started to falter, but she continued to make great defensive plays from her short-stop position. The heroics of Romero and Sappingfield, who were both seriously ill and playing in 100+ degree heat (Romo also had the added problem of a banged knee from Saturday’s late-game), were vital in this pressure-packed situation. She would score again in the third, drawing a walk that set up another 2-run blast, this one coming from Senior Caitlin Blanchard, who’s protection of Romero is one of the most vital under-rated parts of Michigan’s success this season. The 4 runs would be all Wagner needed, as Michigan held on for a 4-3 victory, forcing a winner-take-all nightcap.
That nightcap would prove to be nothing less than one of the greatest games in Michigan postseason history, quite possibly the best ever in the regional round. Once again the Maize & Blue got to ASU star Dallas Escobedo in the first inning, this time via a pair of bases-loaded walks. After that, though, the Sun Devils’ ace settled in, and, despite having thrown well over 300 pitches on the weekend (no one else entered the circle for ASU during the entire regional), seemed to have things mostly in hand as an error and a couple of home-runs staked her side to a 4-2 lead. A Sierra Lawrence solo shot in the 5th cut the lead to 1. Nevertheless, with even Romo’s magic bat going cold (an inning-ending double play & a K to end the Michigan 6th can only be chalked up to serious illness), things looked bleak as the Wolverines came up to bat in the top of the seventh, and bleaker still when a ground-out brought Sierra Lawrence to the plate with one out and no runner to advance.
And then all hell broke loose in the best possible way. Determined to remind the world that Michigan doesn’t just have one Sierra, the sophomore outfielder smashed the first pitch she saw over the fences, staying fair by only a few yards. The dugout erupted as Silo’s first-ever multi-HR game tied things up. Just as the cheers started to die down with senior Taylor Hasselbach coming to the plate, the Michigan fans and players roared into life once more as a no-doubter (the outfielders didn’t even move) crushed to center field unbelievably put the Wolverines ahead. From being a minor role-player for her first three years, Hasselbach has exploded onto the scene as a senior, and now has a Michigan moment that she’ll never forget.
That would be all the scoring in the Michigan half of the inning, but the damage was done, and the shoe was on the other foot, with the Sun Devils needing at least a run and having only three outs to do it in. A ground-out, a single, and a pop-out brought Amber Freeman to the plate. Taking her cue from Lawrence and Hasselbach, Freeman swung away at the first pitch she saw, belting it to straightaway center field. The Arizona State crowd cheered, Freeman started sprinting around the bases, and Hutch looked like she was going to join Romo and Sappingfield in vomiting. The only person in the stadium who still thought Michigan had a chance as the little yellow ball streaked towards the fence was senior outfielder Lindsay Doyle. Doyle stretched every inch of her 5-foot 4-inch frame to pull back the would-be walk-off, saving the day and putting Michigan through to the Super Regionals in Tallahassee. On the roster, Michigan doesn’t have anyone listed shorter than Doyle, but in that moment, she towered over them all, spoiling ASU’s day and extending her career with an immortal memory.
With the brilliant heroics of the regional behind us, we turn to consider the next opponent, the Seminoles of Florida State. The Noles have blazed through their season to this point almost without a hitch, boasting a dazzling 53-6 record. The ACC is not a particularly strong softball conference, and no one was able to provide them with much in the way of a challenge, as they won both the regular season and tournament championships by decent margins, racking up 8 mercy-rule wins along the way. Their few losses have been competitive affairs against quality opposition, leaving no real embarrassments to speak of. One note of interest is that they did lose their one match-up against a Big Ten team, dropping their season opener against Nebraska 4-3.
For the second week in a row, Michigan will have to face down a Player of the Year finalist in the circle. Lacey Waldrop anchors the FSU rotation, boasting a .90 ERA that has her in the top five nation-wide. She hurls almost four times as many Ks as BBs, and has conceded only 4 homers all season. Unlike ASU, however, who lived and died on the arm of Dallas Escobedo, the Noles seem to use their rotation a little more. While Waldrop has started 37 games this year, she’s been relieved in twelve of those. Jessica Burroughs is the other starter for Florida State. She’s a step back from Waldrop’s dominance, but still a solid pitcher in her own right, with a 1.89 ERA. Finally, there is Jessica Nori, a reliever with 18 appearances but only one start. Expect Florida State to go with Waldrop as long as they can, but if the Michigan bats get to her, the Noles do have some valid options in the bullpen.
Offensively, Maddie O’Brien (FSU’s other Player of the Year finalist!) is the star. She’s their only player with more than 5 at-bats who is hitting .400 or better, and she is also the team-leader in homers with 23. Like Sierra Romero, she also plays shortstop and bats third. Courtney Senas is the other major threat. She sets the table for O’Brien, but can also play long ball, having cleared the fences 13 times. There are a few other .300 hitters in the line-up, but it doesn’t quite provide the top-to-bottom fear that ASU boasted. That said, with the up-and-down pitching Michigan has had lately, nothing can be taken for granted. Hopefully Wagner’s strong finish to the Regional will carry over and those concerns can be put to bed.
FSU did struggle to put away South Florida last weekend, but that’s understandable given the excellent pitching the Bulls have. After the madness that was the Regional, I’m not even going to try to make any predictions here. If Michigan plays their best, they can win, if they play their worst, they’ll lose, and if it’s somewhere in between, it’ll be a toss-up. I expect another round of thrilling softball, although unfortunately I’ll be at a conference & unable to follow the games. Keep the live threads going, guys, and go Blue!
Softball Regional Preview
This is going to be a bit briefer than my previous two write-ups about this team, as I’m in the middle of a very busy week and my energy has waned a little given the disappointing results of late (how spoiled we softball fans are when a Big Ten co-championship and Player of the Year is a disappointment!). However, I still wanted to get something together for the regional, as this team absolutely has the potential to do great things if they can get firing on all cylinders again.
Big Ten Recap
Halfway through the Big Ten season, everything was looking great down at the Wilpon Complex. The Wolverines were riding a 20-game winning streak that had begun with a 3-0 victory over then-7th ranked Arizona. Sierra Romero lead the country in batting average, along with several other offensive categories, star pitcher Haylie Wagner was in the top ten nationally with a sub-1 ERA, and the team was highly ranked in runs per game, fielding percentage, team ERA, and more. At the height, the Maize & Blue climbed into the top 5 in the polls and looked to be a lock to cruise to yet another outright Big Ten Championship and a Super Regional seed.
The first bump in the road came at the hands of Minnesota, who snapped the winning streak, claiming a 1-0 win in a pitcher’s duel that ended as Wagner’s first loss on the season. Michigan bounced back to claim the next two, however, and no one thought much of a close loss to a strong team. After that, however, things began to get out of hand. A mid-week loss to a middling Purdue team turned into the prelude to an astonishing run-rule loss at miserable Illinois. The tail-spin was capped off by losing two out of three to Wisconsin, which ended up costing the Wolverines an outright title. For the first time in years, we were forced to share, in this case with Nebraska, an up-and-coming team in the conference.
Michigan went to the conference tournament looking for a measure of redemption as well as an opportunity to shore up their claim to host a regional. Things looked good in the beginning, with a decisive win over the Illinois team that had embarrassed the team just a few weeks back, followed up by a thrilling walk-off win against Wisconsin. It seemed as though Michigan was exorcising the demons as, despite a few sloppy mistakes, they found themselves matched up with Minnesota in the conference final. After grabbing a 2-0 lead, Michigan gave it right back again, as the Gophers smacked two solo-shots to tie things up. Michigan missed several opportunities to reclaim the advantage, and in the end Minnesota walked off a winner as a defensive blunder turned what could have been the final out of the 7th inning into a game-winner.
In the end, the tumble cost Michigan the right to host a regional, and they will instead travel to Tempe, where Arizona State will play host. It’s difficult to point to any one problem that cost Michigan during the home stretch of the regular season. The pitching was not as good, the offense faltered in key situations, and the number of errors was on the rise. There is a lot to correct if Michigan wants to make a big run in the postseason.
With all that said, Carol Hutchins isn’t one of the greatest of all-time for nothing. She has assembled a powerfully talented team and doubtless knows exactly what needs doing. We can be quite certain that Arizona State was not at all happy to see us on their radar. While Wagner’s ERA has taken a hit of late, she still clocks in at #25 in the nation and tops in the Big Ten with a 1.55 mark. Similarly, recent errors have hurt Michigan’s fielding percentage, but a .977 number is tied for 5th in the country in that category even so, and at 6.69 runs per game, the offense is tenth in the land. The offense is powered by the Big Ten Player of the Year, sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero. Romero has continued to put up video game numbers all season long, leading the country in batting average by almost three-tenths of a point with a staggering .510. She likewise leads in on-base percentage by a country mile, with an almost-unbelievable .646 (2nd place is way back at .581). She is also tied for 2nd in the land in runs scored per game, a great testament to Blanchard, who has been her protection for most of the season. Perhaps losing the right to host a regional will be just the wake-up call this team needs. A deep run is still very much in the cards if everything shapes up right.
Three teams look to stand in Michigan’s way in their quest to advance to the super regional. Michigan will play San Diego State Friday at 12:30 PM, with more games to follow depending on the results. All regional games will be broadcast on ESPNU, so even though we don’t get to watch at Wilpon, we’ll still get to see our ladies compete!
San Diego State
The Aztecs took home the Mountain West crown this year with a 16-8 conference record. Overall, they went 39-17, with one win against a ranked team (a decisive 7-3 result over California). Outside of that, they lost to a few other ranked teams, but mostly faced a fairly light schedule against which they had decidedly mixed results. In the circle, SDSU is a one-trick pony, living and dying on the fortunes of sophomore southpaw Danielle O’Toole. Her 1.66 ERA (tied for 34th nationally) and 30-8 record are impressive despite the less-than stellar opposition she faced. She is definitely a strike-out pitcher, boasting 184 Ks on the season to only 39 BBs. She should provide a decent test for the Michigan batters in the regional opener.
On offense, the Aztecs have a balanced attack, with 6 different players batting over .300 for the season, the highest mark being .361. That mark is held by Sydnee Cable, who also gets on base over half the time. Patrice Jackson is the real driving force of the offense, however, with an on-base of .543 and a team-leading 16 long-balls. Both are somewhat strike-out prone, however, so there will be chances to set them down without facing too much damage. This is a match-up that Michigan should win, but can’t take for granted – as if we needed any reminding of that right now!
The Big Green (!) dominated Ivy League play, running away with the championship on the strength of an 18-2 record and will be making their first NCAA appearance. While they will almost surely be steam-rolled by a highly-ranked Arizona State squad in the opening game, it’s possible we could see them at some point in a loser’s bracket match-up. Outside of the Ivy League, Dartmouth only managed a 15-17 tally, despite not facing any powerful opposition. Their top pitcher is Kristen Rumley, whose 1.86 ERA is tops on the team, as is her 18-7 record. Morgan McCalmon has also seen substantial time, putting together a 10-7 record and a 2.49 ERA. Their offense is a little more top-heavy than SDSU’s, with only four .300 hitters (two of whom, incidentally, are the aforementioned pitchers). Katie McEachern provides most of the power, leading the team in homers and RBIs, with 8 and 30, respectively. If Michigan ends up in a pitched battle with this team at any point, it’ll be time to sound the alarm bells. If all goes well, we should never have to face them.
The Sun Devils are the regional hosts and favorites to win. They went 44-10-1 (rain lead to the tie, a 2-2 draw with top-ranked Oregon), and 15-7-1 in the ultra-tough Pac-12. Like Michigan, however, they have been scuffling somewhat of late. Ranked in the top-5 at one point, they are now only the #9 seed in the NCAA tournament, having three losses and a tie in their last five games. Their struggles are more understandable, however, as they came against Oregon and three-seed (and perennial powerhouse) UCLA. The Sun Devils will be looking to regain some momentum by throttling Dartmouth before the real showdown later on.
ASU’s offense is strong top to bottom, with 6 players hitting over .320 (and another just a couple points under .300), giving them the 12th-ranked team batting average in the NCAA. What’s more, they have some serious power as well. Four separate players boast double-digit home run totals, and only one of their starters has fewer than 6 round-trippers. All these numbers have come against the always-strong pitching of the Pac-12, as well, so there isn’t much of an issue of inflation against weak opposition. This is a team that can punish you 1-9, so if Michigan wants to win, the pitching and fielding will have to be absolutely top-notch. Defensive mistakes or pitches left hanging will be turned into runs in very short order.
In addition to their potent offense, senior-righty Dallas Escobedo is a powerful presence in the circle. The National Player of the Year Finalist managed a 1.85 ERA, and with over 10 Ks per game, is among the nation’s best strike-out pitchers. She is absolutely the real deal, although last year Michigan’s own Player of the Year candidate Sierra Romero did touch her up for a 2-run blast in the wee hours of the morning. She got her revenge earlier this season, however, pitching a brilliant 1-hitter in a 2-0 shutout during the non-conference schedule.
Michigan is facing down a tough challenge, and they’re in a hole they dug themselves. Nevertheless, this is a team that was once looking likely to cruise to a top-5 finish in the country, one that has wins against a number of elite teams, and one that boasts (in my totally-not-biased opinion) the best candidate for the Player of the Year award. In the end, it seems likely that this regional will break down into a best of three series between Michigan and ASU, with a couple other games mixed in for good measure. Neither Dartmouth nor SDSU look like serious threats to win the thing. It’s tough to pick against the Sun Devils, but I will say that Michigan absolutely has a shot to win here. All that’s needed is cleaning up the mistakes and playing to ability. Do that, and we could be looking at a super-regional date with (most likely) Florida State!
After breezing past WMU in a mid-week mercy rule walk-through, the Maize & Blue softball squad took Sparty to the woodshed in a 3-game sweep. The Wolverines bombed the Spartans back into the Stone Age, delivering 9-1, 8-0, and 14-0 drubbings.
The pitching and defense were outstanding, as Michigan allowed only one earned run (a solo homer off of Wagner) on the weekend and did not commit a single error. The Wolverines came into the weekend at 11th nationally in team ERA and 4th in fielding percentage, and managed to improve their stats in both of those categories (NCAA won't update their database until later, so I don't know about ranks). For a team that struggled defensively last year, this is a major bonus. All three pitchers have been dominating since Big Ten play began, and the fielding is first-rate. If this can keep up as competition gets stiffer, Michigan has a great chance to go deep in the tournament.
Offensively, it was more of the same. Romero went 5-for-8 on the weekend and drew a pile of walks. She crossed home-plate multiple times in each game. Romo came into the weekend 6th in the nation in runs per game, and improved her numbers. This is a great testimony to her insane on-base percentage, but even more so to the ability of the rest of the team to push her across. It has to be a huge help when she's up there drawing walk after walk & hitting singles instead of homers to have that trust, and the trust has been well-earned - major praise to the whole hitting line-up!
A fun side-note on Sunday's game: Michigan hit for the cycle in home runs as a team, delivering, one, two, and three run blasts along with Driesenga's pinch-hit grand slam to finish off the scoring in a 10-run 7th inning.
After a mid-week match-up against CMU, the 2nd place Golden Gophers come to town for a 3-game set. As long as Michigan gets a win, they'll retain a multi-game lead, and 2 out of 3 would put us in great position, but you can bet the team has it's eye on a sweep!
After a nail-biter on Saturday, the softball team decided to make things a little easier on themselves Sunday, winning a pair of run-rule decisions, 10-0 (5 inn.) and 9-1 (6 inn.). The two wins represented the 500th and 501st wins in conference play for Carol Hutchins. Hutch now boasts a career record of 1354-457 overall.
After the offense continued to struggle in the early innings of game one, Sierra Romero got things started with a solo-shot in the fourth, and then the lid came off in a big way. Taylor Hasselbach added two more runs with her first of three home runs on the day, and then in the fifth the Wolverines plated 7, capped off by a game-ending grand slam from catcher Lauren Sweet. Game two brought more of the same, as Hasselbach drove in two more homers, including a grand slam of her own.
The pitching staff picked up right where Wagner left off on Friday, surrendering just 5 hits and one earned run in 11 innings of work. Driesenga is looking steadily more in control after struggling during non-conference play, delivering the game one shut-out via 6 Ks to just one walk. Betsa continued to show her ability as a strike-out pitcher, delivering ten strikeouts over the course of the game. On the season, Betsa now has just one fewer K than ace Haylie Wagner, despite having pitched over 40 fewer innings (she does have a few more walks than Wagner). Having two strong pitchers with such different styles could prove a great asset going forward.
Elsewhere in the Big Ten, both Purdue and Minnesota took losses over the weekend, giving Michigan a full two game lead three weeks into the season. After a mid-week matchup against Central (correction - Western, Central is next week), the Wolverines have a three game set with a miserable Michigan State squad (1 in Ann Arbor, 2 in East Lansing). The Spartans are in last place in the Big Ten with just one win, and have yet to reach double-digit wins on the season. They've lost nine of their last ten, and were just swept by Penn State. The only danger I can see here is if Michigan gets caught looking ahead to the big showdown with Minnesota the week after, which will likely determine conference supremacy.
Romero continues to lead the way with her bat.
So I have grad school stuff to work on, but I don’t want to do that. Consequently, you all get more softball coverage! Hopefully that’s what you wanted…
In any case, with the postponement of today’s game against BGSU, the scheduled home opener, the bulk of the softball team’s non-conference schedule has come to an end. They still have a mid-week match-up against Western Michigan on April 8th as well as the make-up game for today, whenever that might be [update: this will be next Tuesday, March 25], but all the most serious opponents are behind us, and we can take a look at where things stand heading into Big Ten play. (All this comes with the caveat that I have yet to watch the team play, so I’m working off of stats & recaps. I’d love to hear some more comments from those who have gotten the chance to take in a game or two!)
Record, Postseason Outlook
As usual, the team put itself through the wringer, playing in six different tournaments/invitationals/etc., traveling to Florida, California, Louisiana, and Kentucky to take on many of the nation’s best teams. Michigan’s 19-6 record could have been a little better, but not much. The only bad loss was against an unranked and mediocre Houston outfit, and that came in the middle of the Judi Garman Classic where Michigan was facing a murderer’s row of top-ten teams. A little loss of focus is perhaps understandable. All the other losses came against ranked teams, and except for one loss to Louisiana-Lafayette at ULL’s home ballpark, they were all against top-ten teams. Two of those losses came in extra innings, including a heartbreaker in the season opener, when Michigan lost a 4-run lead in the 7th against Florida. When you play teams of this caliber, you’re going to take some losses, but it’s worth it for the wins you do manage and for the experience the players gain.
With the bad out of the way, let’s take a look at the positives from the non-conference slate. The Wolverines have accumulated five wins against ranked teams, including three against top-ten teams (Kentucky, UCLA, and Arizona). The UCLA win is definitely the crown jewel in Michigan’s resume right now, as the Bruins have torched their non-conference slate to the tune of a 26-1 record. After pushing the Bruins to extras before falling 4-1 on March 4th, the Wolverines came back the next day and torched UCLA to the tune of a 9-4 pounding which remains their only loss. Heading into Big Ten play, Michigan finds itself ranked #6 in the nation in the most recent poll. As long as the Maize & Blue stay in the top 16, we’ll have a regional in Ann Arbor, and if we stay in the top 8, we could end up hosting a super-regional as well, should we be fortunate enough to get that far. This is where Michigan wants to be at this point in the season.
From the start of last season, conversations about individual player performances on Michigan’s softball team have begun with one player: Sierra Romero. She has not disappointed this season, leading the team with an absolutely absurd .493 batting average, good for ninth in the nation, with only a couple other major-conference players ahead of her. She has done this despite being walked more than a quarter of the time (24 walks to 67 at-bats), showing great plate discipline, only striking out 9 times thus far. While her six home-runs are a little off last year’s record-setting pace, this is to be expected, as terrified pitchers do everything they can to stay out of her way. At the end of the day, Romero is following up her Big Ten Player of the Year campaign in grand style (she has also improved defensively, with a .015 improvement in fielding percentage over last season).
While the conversation starts with Romero, it certainly does not end there. Eight different Wolverine batters are hitting over .320 (two of those have under 30 at-bats, the other six all have more than 60). Colie Sappingfield has been doing great work in her usual lead-off spot [edit: batting second], betting on-base over 40% of the time and batting just shy of .400. She even managed a home run, which for a pure slap-hitter must have come as quite the surprise! The highest-impact freshman on offense has been Abby Ramirez, hitting .324 in 67 at bats. She could use a little more plate discipline, having struck out 9 times to only 6 walks, but that’s the sort of thing this coaching staff can easily handle. That kind of hitting right out of the gate as a freshman shows a lot of promise. Overall, Michigan boasts the #18 team batting average (.329) in the nation and the #46 scoring offense (5.56 runs per game). Both of these numbers may very well go up as the Wolverines head into a weak Big Ten slate (more on that in a moment).
Unfortunately, Lauren Sweet hasn’t quite been able to match her play from late in the season last year, batting only .224. However, last year she did much worse in the non-conference schedule, and then turned it on once Big Ten play hits. If she makes a similar leap in conference play this year, she could quickly find herself as one of the top offensive threats in the conference. The bigger disappointment has been the pitching of last year’s ace, Sara Driesenga, which has really tailed off from last season. Her ERA currently stands at .319 [edit: 3.19] and she has yet to find her first win on the season. I haven’t heard any injury news (others may know something I don’t), so I’m not sure how to explain it. She has been playing better of late, however, and has found some success in a relief role, notching 3 saves on the season. Hopefully she too will make some improvements in Big Ten play.
Driesenga’s struggles have been offset by the rest of the pitching staff, however. Freshman Megan Betsa has faced a true baptism by fire, having pitched against many of the nation’s elite teams. While she has struggled at times, she has managed a respectable 2.27 ERA with 63 Ks to 23 BBs. The 63 Ks are especially impressive, and she leads the team in that category, despite having pitched more than 25 innings fewer than Wagner. She will certainly be an important piece going forward.
The biggest factor defensively, however, has been the resurgence of southpaw Haylie Wagner. After struggling through injuries last season as losing her role as the ace of the staff, she has reclaimed that spot with a vengeance. There are currently only 20 D-I pitchers with ERAs under 1.00, and Wagner clocks in at #17 in this crowd, currently holding opponents to a stingy .93, more than 1.5 better than she managed last season. She currently boasts a 13-0 record with 8 complete games, and leads the team in almost every pitching category. If she keeps up anything like this level of play, she stands a great chance of reclaiming her Big Ten Pitcher of the Year crown.
Big Ten Outlook
As usual, the Wolverines come into the Big Ten as the favorites to win the conference. Competition may be stiffer this year than usual, however, with Nebraska and Minnesota both joining the Maize & Blue in the top-25. The Huskers & Gophers haven’t taken on as challenging of non-conference slates as Michigan has, but both have notched Ws against at least one ranked team and stand to give Michigan a run for their money in the Big Ten.
Despite these challengers, I expect Michigan to take the crown, if for no other reason than that the schedule sets up much more easily for Michigan than their challengers. A mid-April home series against the Golden Gophers is Michigan’s only test against the top third of the conference, and a road series against Illinois represents the only time Michigan will travel to face a team with a winning record in the non-conference schedule. The Fighting Illini have managed a 14-7 record, but have yet to beat a ranked team. Other than 12-10 Wisconsin, whom the Wolverines get at home to close out the season, the rest of Michigan’s schedule is comprised of teams with losing records, some of them truly dismal.
Without a doubt, the Minnesota series is the key point in the conference slate. If the Wolverines can take care of business against the teams they should beat and take at least 2 out of 3 from the Gophers, the road to a seventh straight Big Ten Championship should be fairly clear. I can’t predict a perfect conference record, because that has never been done in Michigan history, but I have a tough time picking out more than 2 or 3 potential losses.
If that can be managed, the Wolverines will be well-positioned to head into post-season play with plenty of momentum and experience. Weather-permitting, Big Ten play begins at the Wilpon Complex this Friday at 4 PM, as 8-17 Indiana comes to town. I wish I could be there; for those of you in Southeast Michigan, get out and support the team!
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!