"I love it that Ivy League coaches are coming to our camp and Big Ten coaches are coming to our camp. South Florida is coming. We've got about 70 schools that are coming to our camp."
South Bend Wolverine
Roll the dough!
NCAA Softball Super-Regional
Thursday-Friday, May 21-22
ESPN, ESPN2 & ESPNU
The NCAA super-regional is a best-of-three series. There will be one game Thursday and one Friday, with a third game following a half-hour after the second if needed.
Thursday, May 21
Game 1 -- #3 Michigan vs. #14 Georgia (ESPN2)
Friday, May 22
Game 2 -- #3 Michigan vs. #14 Georgia (ESPNU)
Game 3 (if necessary) -- #3 Michigan vs. #14 Georgia (ESPN)
Last year in Tempe, the regional was an emotional thrill-ride. Shoot-outs, come-backs, and one of the greatest games in Michigan softball history combined to put the Wolverines past Arizona State. Cardiologists throughout Southeast Michigan were probably happy to see this year’s affair cause the Maize & Blue spectators a great deal less anxiety. Apart from a spot of indigestion when Cal briefly took a 1-0 lead on Saturday, there was not much to raise heart rates or drive up blood pressure as the big Blue machine cruised to their regional coronation.
As the top seed in the region, Michigan drew the Oakland Golden Grizzlies in the opener, a middling team that snagged an auto-bid out of a lower-tier conference. Michigan was not as sharp as they could have been in their first playoff appearance, which Carol Hutchins attributed to the nervous energy of the first game of the playoffs. Even so, Michigan breezed by a badly out-matched Oakland team. The Grizzlies played into Michigan’s hands, handing out 6 walks, committing 2 errors, and plunking a pair of Wolverine batters. As she has done so often, Sierra Romero led the way on offense, going 2-3 with 2 RBIs as Michigan secured a 9-1 mercy-rule win.
Michigan had to shake off the jitters that slowed them down in game 1 quickly, as a tested California team came knocking on the door on Saturday. As mentioned, Cal took an early lead with a home run in the top of the 2nd. The first time through the line-up, Michigan continually made contact against Cal starter Stephanie Trzcinski, but couldn’t get much going beyond a manufactured run in the 2nd to level the score. Once they’d had a look at her, though, Michigan’s deadly line-up zeroed in and showed no mercy. Romero gave Michigan the lead on a deep solo-blast in the third, and in the 4th the rest of the team blew the doors down. Falk, Lawrence, and Christner each launched long-balls, and Cal was down 7-1 before they came back to the plate. Cal would continue to threaten throughout the day, but Betsa worked out of several jams with a little help from her friends. Abby Ramirez highlighted the defensive performance with a dynamite diving grab to rob a base hit. A two-run double in the 6th from senior catcher Lauren Sweet allowed Michigan to walk off early for the second day in a row, also by a 9-1 margin.
On Sunday, Michigan unexpectedly faced the Pittsburgh Panthers, who used a grand slam and some good freshman pitching to oust the Bears in the Saturday late game. As the away team on the scoreboard, Michigan batted first, and by the time they were done, the game was almost out of reach. Sierra Lawrence sprinkled the cheese from the lead-off spot, reaching 2nd base on a hard-hit ball down the right-field line. She would come in to score after two illegal-pitch calls. Pitt’s hurler hit Romero and walked Christner before giving up a 3-run blast to Susalla. Clearly flustered, she left the game without retiring a single Michigan batter. Aidan Falk added another run, and it was 5-0 by the time Pitt picked up their bats. It briefly looked as though Michigan might grab yet another mercy-rule win when the lead swelled to 8 runs in the 3rd, but Pitt got 3 back in the bottom of the same inning. Neither starter Wagner nor reliever Betsa had her best stuff today, as on-and-off drizzles, fatigue, and perhaps just a little complacency with the big lead kept them off-balance. They did what they needed to do, however, and the offense removed any doubt with a pair of insurance runs in the 5th inning. Alumni Field rose as one to cheer on Betsa as she gunned down the final Pitt hitter in the 7th, and Michigan could celebrate a 10-3 win and a regional championship.
The stats throughout the weekend were impressive to say the least for the Maize & Blue. Michigan went 3-0, outscoring their opponents 28-5 along the way and posting a combined 1.84 ERA with a 26-5 K to BB ratio. 5 home runs on the weekend pushed Michigan’s season total to a staggering 112, now well past the 2005 team’s program record in that category. Junior wonder-worker Sierra Romero showed the full range of her abilities, going 5-9 at the plate, showing power with a home-run and blazing speed with a triple and a cheeky bunt-single against a backed-off infield. Freshman Aidan Falk made a big impression as well – as Hutch says, at this point in the year, they’re not freshmen anymore! She hit .600 on the weekend, grabbing 3 hits against both Cal and Pitt.
After Sunday’s game, Carol Hutchins told her team what she always does after a regional win – that they are one of only 16 teams in the country that gets to have practice on Tuesday. For a coach that wants nothing more than a chance to help her players get better, that is reason enough to be excited. One of those other 15 teams will be thinking along the same lines, however, and is headed for Ann Arbor with no intentions of bowing out early. Now it’s time for us to look ahead to our opponents in the next round, the Georgia Bulldogs out of the ESS-EEE-SEE!
Georgia tore through a thoroughly mediocre non-conference schedule, littered with the Elons and Winthrops of the world. The Mary Nutter Collegiate Challenge was their only real foray into serious opposition prior to conference play. There Georgia notched a shiny win over Oklahoma, but suffered losses to Texas and Notre Dame – tourney teams, but ones a real contender should be able to handle. The Bulldogs added a few more non-conference games in the midst of their conference slate, and did not fare so well in those match-ups, dropping a wild 15-9 affair to UNC and taking a surprise 4-3 loss against USC Upstate.
Within the SEC, Georgia’s season went largely according to plan, with few major upsets in either direction. A home win against Alabama and a road sweep of Kentucky mark the most impressive achievements of the Dogs on the season thus far. With the rise of the conference as a whole, however, simply navigating the schedule without excessive humiliation now buys a team not only a ticket to the big dance, but the right to host a regional as well.
Once in the regional, things got dicey for Georgia. Fans that came to Athens on Saturday got to watch MUCH more than they paid to see. Western Kentucky went 14 innings with Georgia, eventually winning a 2-1 pitchers’ duel on the arm of Miranda Kramer, who struck out 19, allowing only 5 hits and 1 run over the equivalent of two back-to-back games. After that, Georgia was pushed to the very edge of elimination, salvaging a 2-run deficit in the 5th inning against UNC before walking off in the 7th. Sunday went by more easily, as Kramer was unable to recapture the magic of her earlier performance, and Georgia cruised to back-to-back double-digit mercy-rule wins. They escaped ignominy and earned the right to travel north to Ann Arbor where, according to their football coach, they will surely freeze to death.
Digging into the stats, we see a Georgia team with a respectable defense and an elite offense. Chelsea Wilkinson is clearly the work-horse for Georgia in the circle, having hurled over 100 more innings than back-up Brittany Gray, and leading the team in ERA, strike-outs, and a number of other categories. She is a strike-out merchant, averaging a little over one per inning – not Betsa-level, but quite good. The one real knock on her is that she is significantly more inclined to give up the long-ball compared to her partner, ceding over 5 times more on the season. While this may be attributable to having faced better opposition, Georgia may want to consider giving Gray an opportunity if the home runs start piling up.
Meanwhile, at the plate, Georgia stands squarely among the nation’s elite. The Dogs .346 team batting average is actually a hair ahead of Michigan’s .344 number, and is tied for 10th nation-wide. While Michigan more than makes up the difference with a better on-base and more home runs, there is no doubt that the Bulldogs can plate runs when they need to. At the end of the day, what matters on offense is scoring runs, and Georgia is again tied for 10th in the country at 7.31 per game (Michigan, meanwhile, is in 2nd at 8.30).
The star of the line-up is Alex Hugo without a doubt. She hits over .400, gets on base over half the time she steps to the plate, and leads the team with an impressive 21 homers. Limiting her opportunities to get multiple RBIs will be essential for Michigan’s defense. That won’t be easy to do, however, as almost every major contributor on Georgia hits over .330. Sisters Cortni and Sydni Emanuel are both over .400 on the year (there are two other girls in the Emanuel family, Brittni and Whitni, which … ok). For one of the first times this season, Betsa and Wagner will really get a sense of what other pitchers feel like going up against our line-up – there simply are no easy outs available.
The one weakness in this buzz-saw of an attack is a dearth of true power hitters. Apart from Hugo, only one other hitter has double-digit homers on the year (Anna Swafford, a strike-out prone .342 slugger). After her, only one more player has more than 5 long balls. This team is almost certainly going to get hits, but as long as we can scatter them and get the timely K or double-play, we just might escape without too much damage. If they get on a roll and the hitting becomes contagious, however, the wheels can come off in a hurry, as WKU’s Miranda Kramer found out on Sunday.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Like last week, I’ll peg a couple Michigan names for newer fans to keep an eye on. It would be a little too easy to just name superstar Sierra Romero and ace pitcher Megan Betsa every time, so this week, let’s put the spotlight on a couple players who have been coming on strong of late – Lindsey Montemarano and Aidan Falk. In addition to starting the team’s pizza obsession, Montemarano has been a spark plug in the line-up in recent weeks after having to fight for her spot earlier in the season. She has become a highly disciplined hitter, using her diminutive stature (and accompanying smaller strike-zone) to draw more than her fair share of walks. Aidan Falk starred in the “regional review” above, and deservedly so. She has been dialed in of late, and is beginning to show more and more of the power she used to set state records in New York in her high school days. Carol Hutchins has often spoken about the importance of hitting through the line-up, 1-9 rather than just 1-4. Keep an eye on this pair as we look to continue that trend.
As much as I hate to do it, even a superstitious fan like myself has to make some predictions at the end of a write-up. Looking at Georgia’s numbers, it’s impossible for me to believe that we will hold them down all weekend. At some point they’ll string things together, somewhere along the line, Michigan’s defense will be stretched to the limit. All the same, when you stack things up, and as much as I hate to jinx anything with over-confidence, I just can’t see them beating us out. We hit just as well as they do for average, better for on-base, and vastly better for power. Their ace is very good; our back-up has better numbers than her and our ace is among the nation’s best. I see Georgia getting hot and winning a game, but Michigan will pull through in the end and return to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series next week.
[Ed-S: written at our request.]
Big Ten Champions
|WHAT||NCAA Softball Regional|
|WHERE||Wilpon Complex/Alumni Field|
|WHEN||Friday-Sunday, May 15-17|
|TV||ESPN2 & ESPNU|
The NCAA regional is a double-elimination tournament, so the only team Michigan is guaranteed to play is Oakland; if all goes chalk, Michigan would play Cal in Game 3 and go from there.
|Friday, May 15|
|3:30 p.m.||Game 1 -- #2 seed California vs. #3 seed Pittsburgh (ESPNU)|
|6:30 p.m.||Game 2 -- #1 seed Michigan vs. #4 seed Oakland (ESPNU)|
|Saturday, May 16|
|4 p.m.||Game 3 -- Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner (ESPN2)|
|6:30 p.m.||Game 4 -- Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser (ESPN2)|
|9 p.m.||Game 5 -- Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 winner (ESPNU)|
|Sunday, May 17|
|3:30 p.m.||Game 6 -- Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner (ESPNU)|
|6 p.m.||Game 7 -- Game 6 winner vs. Game 6 loser (if necessary) (ESPNU)|
Big Ten Review
For the first time since 2005, Michigan softball swept the Big Ten championships, taking home the regular season crown after a tightly contested race with Minnesota and the tournament crown after downing PSU, Northwestern, and Nebraska in dominant fashion.
The Wolverines came into Big Ten play slightly chastened by a home loss to Kent State and their brilliant pitcher, but nevertheless riding a brilliant non-conference performance. MGoSoftball has already ably reviewed that portion of the season (http://mgoblog.com/diaries/softball-mid-season-report).
After exacting revenge against KSU and pounding Bowling Green, the Wolverines charged into Big Ten play with a three game set at Ohio State, racking up double-digit wins in all three games. Two games into the Iowa series, things were looking on track for continued success. Halfway through the final game of the series, though, the Wolverines defense collapsed, blowing a 4-run lead and handing the lowly Hawkeyes an unlikely upset at Alumni Field. There wasn't much time to recover, either, as Michigan had to travel up to Minneosta for a 3-game set against the nationally-ranked Golden Gophers, headlined by star pitcher Sara Groenewegen. After a 9-1 run rule drubbing and a blown 3-run lead early in the second game, it looked like Michigan's magical season was unravelling all too quickly.
Fortunately, something clicked in those Maize & Blue minds after that bad 2nd inning in Minnesota, and the Wolverines bounced back. They tied the game in the 3rd, and went on to win 9-4, following up that performance with an Easter Sunday run-rule blowout, returning the 9-1 favor that Minnesota had handed out that Friday.
From that point on, Michigan has not looked back. Since the loss to Minnesota, Michigan has won 20 straight games, including 13 via the run-rule and 2 no-hitters from sophomore stand-out Megan Betsa.
The end of the Big Ten season found the Wolverines in possession of an array of awards, headlined by Megan Betsa as the conference pitcher of the year and Carol Hutchins as the coach of the year. Multiple Wolverines found their way onto the 1st, 2nd, and defensive teams. Sierra Romero won the tournament MVP award and also the inaugural ESPNW national player of the year award as well (she is a finalist for the more prestigious player of the year award, which will be announced later). The brilliance of the team's performance earned Michigan the #3 overall seed in the NCAA tournament and the right to host a regional and, if they win through, a super-regional as well.
Three teams will be coming to Ann Arbor this weekend with their eyes on a trip to the super-regionals. We'll look at Oakland, the #4 seed in the region, first, since they're our Friday opponent, then at #2 seed California and #3 seed Pittsburgh after that.
[After the jump.]
Michigan Softball 2015 Season Preview
Michigan fans have taken it on the chin for the last few months without a doubt. While Harbaugh has brought hope for the future and the hockey and basketball teams have shown great resilience, there can be no doubt that 2014-15 has been a down year for the Maize and Blue on the whole. In times like these, we turn to the reliable things in life, those few things we know we can count on to pick us up. In Ann Arbor for the last three decades, one of those reliable touchstones has been the softball program under the masterful guidance of head coach Carol Hutchins. With a staggering 1,372 wins in her coaching career, Hutchins is not only a Michigan legend, she is a legend among softball fans everywhere. If anyone can give us all the lift we, it’s Carol Hutchins and her team.
Below we’ll take a look at this year’s edition of Michigan softball. We’ll review some of last year’s events and the seniors who have moved on. With the help of MGoSoftball, we’ll preview some of the new faces, and then we’ll turn to the outlook in the three phases of the game – offense, pitching, and fielding. Finally, we’ll examine the schedule and map out the expectations. Just one more week to go before the Wolverines trot out onto the diamond once again!
When last season’s tournament run came to an end at Florida State, Michigan bid farewell to a brilliant senior class. The outgoing seniors were responsible for 193 wins, 4 Big Ten championships, 3 trips to the NCAA super-regionals, and 1 to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series. Four members of the class of ’14 saw significant playing time and production last season. Outfielders Lindsay Doyle and Nicole Sappingfield served as table-setting slap hitters, each getting on base in around 40% of their at bats. First baseman Caitlin Blanchard served as protection for Sierra Romero, punishing teams again and again for the free passes that were repeatedly issued to the star shortstop. Finally, Taylor Hasselbach was the pleasant surprised of the season, coming on strong in her senior year after seeing only limited playing time earlier in her career. Hasselbach hit .320 in her final campaign with 9 home runs, including one in the thrilling 7th inning at the end of the regional. The other seniors served primarily in supporting roles as pinch-hitters and pinch runners. Replacing the production of last year’s seniors, especially at the top of the order, will be a tall order for the 2015 edition of Michigan softball.
As a program that expects to compete for championships every single season, Michigan softball recruits and plays top-quality freshmen every year. MGoSoftball has again furnished us with some great profiles of some of the new recruits, so I’m just going to point you in that direction for those where I see one. For others, I’ll link their MGoBlue.com profile.
Aidan Falk (1B/OF) – http://mgoblog.com/mgoboard/hello-aidan-falk-sb
Amanda Vargas (IF) – http://mgoblog.com/mgoboard/hello-amanda-vargas-sb
Morgan Swift (C) – http://www.mgoblue.com/sports/w-softbl/mtt/morgan_swift_928031.html
Taylor Swearingen (1B/3B) – http://mgoblog.com/mgoboard/hello-taylor-swearingen-sb
Tera Blanco (RHP/1B) – http://mgoblog.com/mgoboard/hello-tera-blanco-sb
MGoBlue.com also has a fluffy profile of three of the freshmen: http://www.mgoblue.com/sports/w-softbl/spec-rel/012915aaa.html
Carol Hutchins will be looking at Falk and Blanco in particular to add some punch to Michigan’s batting line-up. Falk has spent her last few years busily destroying New York high school softball, hitting over .500 and setting the New York state home-run record. Blanco, for her part, comes highly-recommended from the state of California, always a major center of softball recruiting. Rated as the number 1 pitcher in the state for this year’s class, she also hit .420, with a .550 on-base percentage against tough California pitching. Even if she isn’t able to crack into Michigan’s strong pitching rotation, she has the opportunity to contribute in a big way, with a number of openings in the line-up.
In the Circle
Michigan’s pitching staff had an up-and-down season in 2014, with all three pitchers showing great promise, but none delivering a truly elite season. Nevertheless, the Wolverines managed to finish 19th in the nation in team ERA with a 2.07 mark on the season.
2015 will mark the final go-round for senior LHP Haylie Wagner and RHP Sara Driesenga. Both have been the ace of the staff at different points in their careers, but both have struggled at times as well. Wagner in particular has been hampered by injuries. If both play at the top of their game, however, they have the potential to be among the best pitching staffs in the nation. Both came to Michigan as highly-touted recruits; 2015 will be their final opportunity to leave the kind of lasting mark the came to Ann Arbor to make.
Wagner was Michigan’s best pitcher last year, and, having earned a spot of the pre-season Player of the Year watch-list, figures to be the ace of the staff again in 2015. She led the team in ERA at 1.82, posting an impressive 24-5 record. When push came to shove, Hutch turned to Wagner in pressure situations, and despite some mid-season struggles, she came through in a number of key post-season situations. If Michigan is going to make a deep run again, Wagner will need to be a critical component.
Sara Driesenga, the Wolverines’ second senior, struggled in 2014 after a very strong 2013 season. Her ERA dipped from 1.89 to 2.34, and her 31-9 record in 2013 turned into a disappointing 5-6 mark in 2014. She still has all the physical tools to play the position at a high level, however, and has shown great talent in the past. Even so, with Betsa and Blanco pushing from behind, Driesenga will need to show more in 2015 than she did last year if she wants to maintain her spot in the rotation. Carol Hutchins’ long history of getting players to deliver their best performances in their senior seasons makes it too soon to write Driesenga off, though, and the Hudsonville hurler may well have a few tricks left up her sleeve.
Sophomore Megan Betsa rounds out Michigan’s returning pitching staff, coming off a solid freshman season. Betsa went 18-4 with a 2.15 ERA. She faced some typical freshman struggles, but played brilliantly on many occasions, highlighted by a no-no in a 10-0 run-rule victory over Detroit. Betsa provides a change of pace in terms of style as well. While Wagner and to some extent Driesenga are more of ground-ball pitchers, Betsa is a strike-out artist pure and simple. Despite pitching 42.1 innings fewer than Wagner, Betsa led the team in strike-outs with 150 (to Wagner’s 122).
If Wagner and Driesenga both play to their potential and Betsa shows even standard incremental improvement, Michigan’s pitching staff will be a powerful battery. The fact that the top pitcher out of California will be joining the team as well gives the Maize and Blue a level of luxury that few teams can match in the circle.
At the Plate
As much as we all love good defense and pitching (and as often as Hutch has reminded interviewers that softball comes down to those two factors), Michigan has been known for offense in recent years, and justly so. The Wolverines had one of the top ten scoring offenses in the nation in 2014 at 6.56 runs per game. Even though Michigan will need to replace a substantial portion of their hitting line-up, there is a great deal of talent, both new and experienced, and Alumni Field should play host to a strong offense once again.
In the category of talent, no player on the team – and few in the nation – can match rising junior Sierra Romero. Romero burst onto the scene in 2013 by setting the Michigan single-season home-run record, leading the team with a .379 batting average, bringing home the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Player of the Year awards, and finishing the top ten for the NCAA Player of the Year award. Even a repeat performance would have delighted fans of the Maize & Blue, but Romero had no intentions of settling for stagnation. Instead, she managed not to improve, but do so substantially in her sophomore year. While her home-run total dipped from 23 to 18 (still the team leader and tied for 16th nationally), her batting average sky-rocketing to .491, and was over .500 for most of the season until a stomach bug slowed her down in the regional. Even more impressively, she led the nation with a staggering .633 on-base percentage, a full .052 better than the second-place finisher, demonstrating her tremendous patience as team after team pitched around her (Romo was the most-walked player in the nation last season). Her sparkling season led to a top-three finish in the National Player of the Year voting and a second Big Ten Player of the Year award. If the fall series against Kentucky (a WCWS team last year) was any indication, though, Romero is still improving – she went 6-8 with 4 home runs and two doubles against the Wildcats. Great news for Michigan fans, these numbers surely have opposing pitching shaking in their cleats.
While the story of Michigan’s offense starts with Romero, it certainly does not end there. Most significant among returning players will be Michigan’s other Sierra (and third member, with Wagner and Romero, of the Player of the Year watch-list), Sierra Lawrence. Lawrence, or SiLo for short, hit .351 last year, and was second only to Romero on the team in on-base with a very strong .460 mark. She also brings some power, having jacked 9 HR last season, including two in Michigan’s come-from-behind win to clinch the regional over Arizona State. It will be interesting to see where Lawrence ends up in the line-up. Hutch could easily put her in the one or two spot to set the table for Romero with her great OBP, but her power and reliability might keep her in the heart of the order, perhaps replacing Blanchard as Romero’s protection. Wherever she ends up, she’ll have to be a key piece of the puzzle.
After the two Sierras, the question marks become a little bigger in terms of where the offense will come from. Among major contributors last year, all the other .300+ hitters have graduated. Two names stand out as potential risers, however, who could step up into bigger roles. Senior Lauren Sweet could be a candidate to have a break-out season in her last go-round, reminiscent of Taylor Hasselbach in 2014. Sweet has hit in the .200s for much of her career, but has had stretches of elite play, most notably the back half of the 2013 campaign. The other candidate is junior Kelsey Susalla, who played well in limited action a year ago. Early on last year, she looked to be getting some serious playing time, but Hasselbach’s emergence relegated Susalla to a supporting role. Both of these players were named in this space last season, so I hope I’m not just trying to justify my earlier predictions. It seems likely, though, that at least one of these two will step up in a serious way.
After that, Michigan may need to rely on a youth movement to generate offense. Rising sophomores Abby Ramirez and Lindsay Montemarano both saw a good deal of action in 2014, serving at the bottom of the order for the most part. They both struggled at times, but with another full year under Hutch’s tutelage, the potential is always there for a leap forward. Last but not least, some of the freshmen noted above will certainly be thrust into starting roles. This has paid big dividends for Michigan more than once in recent years, and will need to do so again in 2015.
All told, repeating the blistering pace of the offense over the last few years will be difficult while replacing so much of the line-up. The talent is there, however, and Hutch will always get the most out of what she has. We may not see quite as many double-digit games & run-rule blowouts, but the offense should be able to provide the pitching staff with all the run support they need.
In the Field
As I’ve noted before, this section of the preview takes me further from my expertise, and further from easily available statistics. However, at least a little must be said about this key part of the game.
Last season, I called for Michigan to raise their fielding percentage (thoroughly mediocre in 2013) into the top third or quarter of the nation if they wanted to have a successful season. The women did far more than that, ending 2014 in the top ten nationally with a .976 mark. This elite defensive production was a key factor in backing up a pitching staff that, as mentioned, struggled at various moments. Only two players on the team had more than 4 errors in 2014, those being freshman infielder Lindsay Montemarano and Sierra Romero. Romero’s 14 errors last year are still too many, but they do represent a substantial improvement over her freshman season, so there is reason to hope for more improvement this year. Additionally, she makes up for many of those errors with athletic defensive plays to pick up outs that most other players would never come close to. Michigan will have to sustain this high level of defensive play to achieve their goals in 2015. This seems like a reasonable possibility, especially if Romero continues her improvement. I can’t go so far as to predict that Michigan will be a top-ten outfit again, but I’d be surprised to see a major drop-off. If there is one, it may be due to the need to break in a new outfield following the departures of Doyle and Sappingfield, who patrolled the open areas of the field effectively for several years.
With an overall picture of the team in place, we can start looking ahead to the schedule, and then wrap up with some Bold Predictions about what will happen as the season plays out. As always, Michigan starts with an arduous non-conference cross-country tour. The Wolverines open the season with a bang, taking on #1/#1 defending national champion Florida on February 7th. Michigan opened against Florida last year and lost in heartbreaking fashion, blowing a 4 run lead in the 7th before losing in extras. The Florida game will come as part of the first of 5 tournaments/invitationals/classics that Michigan will take part in, comprising 25 games in 4 different states (Florida, Alabama, Arizona, and California). While there are always a few easier games mixed in – if Michigan struggles with Binghampton, we may be in for a long season – the usual bevy of powerful opponents lies in wait. In addition to the match-up with top-ranked Florida, Michigan will have a pair of showdowns with #5/#5 Florida State (who sent Michigan packing in the super-regional last year), and #3/#4 Alabama, three clashes with #16/#16 Arizona State (whom Michigan ousted in thrilling fashion in Tempe a year ago), a rematch with the Gators at the always-challenging Judi Garman Classic, and a tussle with #10/#11 Baylor, also at Judi Garman. Especially given the heavy travel requirements for Michigan, our women will likely be underdogs in many of these matches, but Hutch always manages to pull out a number of big wins no matter what. These games are key for Michigan’s tournament résumé, and provide vital opportunities to get experience playing against the nation’s best. Only the most mentally strong players come to Michigan to run this gauntlet (Southern and Southwestern teams scarcely leave their home stadium until the start of conference play), and they grow together through the experience every year.
The annual odyssey comes to an end on March 14th, when Michigan will finally get to play in front of the home fans at Alumni Field. A three-game set against Kent State and a one-off against Bowling Green a few days later will provide some final tune-ups before conference play gets underway. Once again, Michigan’s journey through the Big Ten should be a lighter burden than the non-conference trek, although last year should serve as a reminder to take nothing for granted. Key losses to over-matched opponents cost the Maize & Blue the outright Big Ten Championship and the right to host a regional. Michigan opens Big Ten play in Columbus, against an OSU team that was thoroughly mediocre a year ago, followed by a home set against an Iowa team that struggled mightily. Next up will be the defining series of the Big Ten season for Michigan, as the team travels to Minnesota to take on the #15/#15 Golden Gophers. Minnesota gave Michigan a real fight last year at Alumni Field and ripped the tournament title from our hands as well. While Sara Moulton is no longer around to terrorize batters, sophomore righty Sara Groenewegen was last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year and can do plenty of damage herself. Taking a couple games from the Gophers on their field would go a long way towards sealing the Big Ten title. After that, Michigan will close out the regular season with a tour of the bottom of the Big Ten barrel. Road trips to newcomers Maryland (11-35 a year ago) and Rutgers (28-19 against weak competition in 2014) combine with a home-and-home against a dismal MSU program and home stands against Penn State and Indiana to round out the Big Ten schedule (there are also a pair of one-offs against MAC opposition mixed in).
Once again, Michigan misses out on most of the tougher opponents in conference, including ranked Nebraska and a Wisconsin team that just missed the top-25. While this is a boost to Michigan’s chances to win the conference, it is a real missed opportunity in terms of staying sharp by facing the best. It’s hard to avoid feeling like the suits at Big Ten HQ dropped the ball on this one once again. Michigan plays the 3 worst teams in the Big Ten from last year, both of the mediocre newcomers, and only one of the other 4 NCAA tournament teams from a year ago. For comparison, Minnesota plays all the tournament teams, and Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Northwestern play all of them except for Michigan.
It’s almost time for some hot takes, but first a look back at the Bold Predictions made in this space a year ago. I said:
- “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.”
Correct! Michigan was ranked #6 in the nation when they opened Big Ten play by slaughtering Indiana in a trio of run-rule decisions.
- "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.”
Correct (almost)! I was right that Michigan would win a Big Ten championship, and also on the mark in identifying Nebraska as the primary threat to Michigan’s reign of terror. What I did not foresee were disastrous road losses against Illinois and Purdue, which opened the door for Nebraska to clinch a share of the title as well.
- “Michigan will once again host a regional and probably a super-regional as well and will go all the way to the WCWS. … Winning it all is a lofty goal, but it is well within reach.”
Not quite. Michigan was on track to do exactly this, but faded down the stretch. The stumbles in the latter portion of the Big Ten season and Michigan’s failure to lock up the conference tournament title sent the Wolverines to Tempe to play in Arizona State’s regional. While Michigan triumphed heroically and started off strong in the super-regional (handing Florida State the worst loss in program history), they could not seal the deal, and went home early.
Looking ahead to this season, it is hard to deviate too much from what I said going into last year. I’m a bit more circumspect about our chances to host a super-regional or maintain a consistent top-ten ranking, given how much we’re replacing on the offensive side of the ball. If things come together at the plate, however, the sky could very well be the limit for this year’s team. So:
- Michigan will end the non-conference portion of the season with a few big wins, but suffer too many setbacks to stay in the top-ten. They will still be in position to host a regional, however, with a ranking in the top 16.
- When a team has won seven conference championships in a row and returns this kind of pitching and talents like the Sierras, it is almost impossible to pick against them in conference play. Even if Michigan struggles, the substantially easier slate of opponents will guide the Maize and Blue to another outright Big Ten crown.
- Michigan will host a regional in Ann Arbor, but probably not a super-regional unless the youth movement on offense comes together in a big way. A trip to the WCWS is very much in play, but not a lock.
- A bonus prediction: with Hutch only needing 28 wins to crack the 1,400 mark and having earned at least 40 wins in every single season since 1994, look for her to fly past 1,400 career wins in 2015.
This Michigan team has a number of wild-cards that make prognosticating difficult. Will Wagner & Driesenga finally both play at an elite level at the same time? How quickly can the offense get up to speed while replacing such a huge part of the line-up? Can Michigan maintain their elite defensive play without its host of reliable seniors? Any of these doubts could hold Michigan back from achieving their lofty goals. If these questions can all be resolved, however, Michigan should be a WCWS team, and could very well wear the crown again, just as they did 10 years ago. What we know for sure is that we’ll have a talented, disciplined, well-coached team that plays as a single unit and stays focused on one-pitch softball. February 7th cannot come soon enough!
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!
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!