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!