Photo credit for all images: Bryan Fuller
October is one of the most crowded months in the athletic year. Football is in full swing, hockey is starting up, baseball is coming to its dramatic conclusion. Only a select few are even aware of the fact that softball is being played at this time of year, much less follow the results or attend the games. A handful of exhibitions, usually rote walkovers of overmatched opponents, transpire in almost total obscurity, coming and going almost entirely unnoticed. It was in this shadowy environment that Sierra Romero first took the field wearing the Maize & Blue.
Rather than the usual walk through, on October 4, 2012, Michigan took on a uniquely challenging foe in exhibition play. Instead of blowing out a directional school, the Wolverines faced off against an all-star team drawn from the National Pro Fastpitch league. The pros had been playing college teams for 3 years, losing just once. Down 2-0 in the bottom of the fifth inning, facing off against a pitcher from the reigning NPF champion team, Sierra Romero stepped into the Alumni Field batter’s box and launched a blast over the wall, tying the game at 2 apiece, setting the stage for an eventual 3-2 Michigan win. Even among the few who attended or knew about the event, hardly any would have dared to hope what a regular sight a Romero home run, or “Rom-bomb” as they came to be known, would be. Even fewer could have imagined what a transformative effect the diminutive freshman would have on the Michigan program over the next four years.
To the extent that any softball player in 2012 could arrive with recruiting hype, Sierra Romero certainly did. Romero dominated the California softball scene as a high school player, the equivalent of dominating Texas or Florida in football, and was one of the most sought-after players in the country. Although she could have named her position on any team in the country, Sierra only took one campus visit – to Ann Arbor, in the dead of winter. Her interest in Michigan had been sparked years earlier, when she attended a Michigan game on one of our many road trips to the West Coast. Romero saw the fire in head coach Carol Hutchins eyes as she stood up to the umpire for her team, and knew that that was someone she wanted to be around. She couldn’t be sure, though, until she saw the Ann Arbor winter in its full fury, so she took her one recruiting visit in the midst of the snowiest part of the year. Unusually for a California girl, she wasn’t only undeterred, she fell in love with the school, the city, and the coach instantaneously.
It didn’t take long for the small community of devoted Michigan softball fans to start falling in love with Sierra Romero either. Following her fall-ball heroics, Romero hit her first home run in just her second game, the first of her NCAA-record 11 career grand slams, as Michigan blew out the FAU Owls 10-2 in 5 innings. In her first series at Alumni Field she introduced herself to the home fans in style, eviscerating Purdue with a 7-7 performance on the weekend. She never looked back from that fast start, blasting her way to the top of Michigan’s stat sheet as a true freshman. Romo, as she quickly became known in order to distinguish her from another freshman star, Sierra Lawrence, hit .379 in 2013, and reached base over half the time she stepped to the plate. For most players, these would be solid career marks to aspire to as a senior. For Romero, they were a starting point. Even more stunning were her school record 23 home runs, including a game-winning 2-run blast in the Women’s College World Series off former national champion Dallas Escobedo in the wee hours of the morning. The post-season awards piled up quickly, as Romero garnered First Team All-Big Ten and Second Team All-American honors, was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Player of the Year, and finished in the top ten for the National Player of the Year award. After less than a year as an Ann Arbor resident, the girl from Murietta had already cemented her name among the legends of Michigan softball.
Hutchins and Romero, coach and player, both legends.
Sierra never intended to just be one among many, however, not even one legend among others. Carol Hutchins has often described Romero’s intense, laser-like focus as one of her most outstanding traits, and as a sophomore she turned that focus towards the goal of becoming the greatest ever to wear the Maize & Blue. As a sophomore, Romo started the season off with a bang. Her first hit of the season was a grand slam against a top-5 Florida team (Michigan would eventually lose in an extra-innings heartbreaker). As the season progressed, Romero hit the cover off the ball as Michigan racked up wins over a handful of ranked teams in the non-conference schedule, and headlined the batting order throughout a 20-game winning streak leading into a key conference series against #12 Minnesota at Alumni Field.
While the Wolverines would take the series 2 games to 1, a 1-0 Friday loss to the Golden Gophers kicked off a troubling trend, as the team would end up dropping 4 straight Friday games to end the season, including an inexplicable 10-2 run-rule loss to a dismal Illinois team. The Friday losses combined with an extra innings defeat at the hands of Wisconsin in the final game of the season to force the Wolverines to share the Big Ten regular season crown with the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Michigan would reach the Tournament championship game, but fell again to Minnesota. The late season slump cost Michigan more than just a trophy – it also meant that the Wolverines, in position for a super-regional seed for much of the season, suddenly found themselves travelling to the blistering heat of Tempe, Arizona for a regional. While the regional final would feature one of the most thrilling games in school history, Michigan would eventually go down in 3 games to the Florida State Seminoles in the supers, missing out on a trip to Oklahoma City.
During these stumbles, Romero seemed impervious to the team’s struggles. She spent almost the entire season with a batting average over .500, finishing at .491 solely because she was violently ill during the Tempe regional (and even then, she managed to play stout defense throughout the weekend in 100-degree temperatures). While her home run numbers dipped slightly, down to 18 on the season, she cut her strike-outs almost in half, added 18 points to her fielding percentage, and reached base a staggering 63.3% of the time she stepped up to bat. Her sterling numbers earned her a pile of post-season awards, including a second Big Ten Player of the Year award and First-Team All-American honors. Even more impressively, as a sophomore she earned a personal trip to Oklahoma City as one of the three finalists for the National Player of the Year award, handed out each year before the Women’s College World Series.
That ball is going to travel a long way very quickly.
As great of an honor as that trip was, Romero made it known that it hadn’t felt quite right to her. She was happy to travel to Oklahoma City, but she had never wanted to make the trip without the rest of her team, and without a chance to play in the games. In 2015, the goals were simple: reclaim sole possession of the Big Ten Championship and return to the WCWS, this time with the whole team. For the junior team leader, individual awards were not going to be enough anymore. After a tight 2-1 loss to reigning national champions Florida, the Wolverines rattled off 19 straight wins to start the season, including taking 2 apiece from #6 FSU, #3 Alabama, and #21 ASU, all on the home turf of these highly-ranked foes. By the time conference play rolled around, Michigan had piled up 25 wins to just 4 losses, and proceeded to open up the Big Ten season by taking 3 games from Ohio State by a combined score of 46-2.
The record was eye-catching, and the stats were as well. Michigan was among the top teams in the country in most offensive categories, and Romero led the way. Her average numbers were almost as good as in 2014, and she had her long-ball swagger back as well. Even more noticeable, however, was the unique esprit de corps displayed in “the year of the pizza”. Michigan’s unique celebrations (rolling the dough at 1st base, sprinkling the cheese at 2nd, spreading the toppings at 3rd, and taking a chomp at home plate) were contagious, and soon became the talk of softball nation. As the Wolverines rose in the rankings, their infectious joy started to turn heads around Ann Arbor, a town in desperate need of some on-field success at that point in time. A pair of mid-season stumbles against Iowa and Minnesota did little to slow the big Blue juggernaut, as the Wolverines lost only one game in April and none in May, blazing their way to Big Ten regular season & tournament championships, a #3 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, and regional & super-regional crowns. Statistical markers fell as well, as the team shattered the program record for home runs in a season.
In the midst of this run of dominance, during which Michigan won most of their games in mercy-rule fashion, Romero actually experienced what Hutch termed a “Sierra Slump” (a statistical situation most players would kill to achieve). Hitting only in the high .300s for much of the Big Ten season, Romero controversially lost out on the Big Ten Player of the Year award for the first time in her career, as Minnesota’s Sara Groenewegen took home the hardware. Romero still earned First Team All-Big Ten and All-American honors, however, and was invited back to Oklahoma City as a top-3 finalist for National Player of the Year for the second year running. Even more importantly, she got to bring her whole team along for the ride. In OKC, Romero played a central role in the Wolverines trip to the Championship series against the Florida Gators, highlighted by a game-tying home run against LSU in the national semifinal.
While the Wolverines came up a game short of national glory and Romero lost out on individual glory to Florida’s Lauren Haeger, the 2015 campaign had brought about a sea-change in Ann Arbor’s relationship to its softball team. Before the year of the pizza, even big, late-season games would reliably have outfield seats available day-of, game threads topped out at a couple dozen posts, and only the dedicated hard core fans even knew the names of the stars. 2015 changed all that. Names like Sierra Romero, Sierra Lawrence, and Megan Betsa became household names overnight, games against nobodies like Rutgers sold out in advance, and an entirely new level of media focus descended upon the team. Heading into the new season, team 39 had a unique burden: pressure. No Michigan softball team had ever faced such high expectations or such public scrutiny, and no player ever faced higher demands than Romo.
Romero at her happiest: winning with her team.
A dispiriting 8-0 loss to nemesis Florida during the season’s opening weekend, a string of too-narrow wins, and pitching questions combined to cast doubts as to whether the team and their once in a generation leader were up to the task. Steadily, though, the team warmed to the task, and steadily Romero’s numbers started creeping back up to her usual lofty standards. Despite the setback against Florida, the Wolverines entered Big Ten play with only 2 losses on the year, both to top-10 teams, and after a wacky 13-12 loss in the conference opener, the pitching settled back in as well. With the Golden Gophers hot on their heels, the Wolverines, led by their star, laid waste to the Big Ten, claiming their 9th straight conference crown. Romero reclaimed her Big Ten Player of the Year throne as well, tying the all-time record with 3 such awards.
The Big Ten awards were just the beginning for the senior from California, as just about every possible accolade in the sport was thrown at Romero. Most importantly, for the third straight year, Romero made the trip to Oklahoma City as a National Player of the Year finalist, and for the second-straight year, she got to bring her team with her. When she sat in that room in Oklahoma and heard her name read out as the winner of the highest individual award the sport has to offer, surrounded by her coaches and teammates, there was no question left. In the face (and with the privilege) of the most pressure and highest expectations any player in program history had been asked to bear, Romero had delivered. The disappointment of falling short of a national championship should, in the long run, do nothing to diminish her staggering achievements.
When I sat down to write this piece, I thought I would tell the story of one player, and figured I would draw on my usual reserve of statistics to paint the picture. I thought I’d end it with a nice list of Romero’s achievements, like becoming the first member of the 300/300/300 club (hits, RBIs, runs), the all-time grand slam leader, and so on. What I’ve ended up with is as much the story of a team and its fans over the course of 4 years as the tale of a single star. In the end, perhaps that is the most fitting way to tell Romero’s story. When she set the Michigan single-season home run record as a freshman, she proclaimed the achievement “an honor”, but declared in the same breath that it was “not what I came here to do.” Romero didn’t just come to Michigan to be the greatest, although she certainly was. She came to Michigan to help take Michigan softball to a new level, on the field and in the community. If you want to know whether she accomplished that goal, you can see it in her teammates who are better because they played with her. You can see it in the sold out crowds at Alumni Field. And one day, not so very far from today, you’ll be able to see it when a young woman comes to play for Michigan because she grew up wanting to be just like Romo.
Alumni Field packed to capacity.