[Ed-S: Team 40 played their first game today, beating Delaware 7-0. Before you ask: no, the Delaware softball team doesn’t use wings on their softball helmets]
It’s that time of year once again! [Photo credit: Bryan Fuller for all photos]
For the last four years, and especially the last two, Michigan softball has been defined by two women named Sierra. The two Sierras, Romero and Lawrence, headlined a star-studded line-up that shattered school, conference, and national records and propelled the Wolverines to the highest echelons of the sport. Perhaps even more importantly, the 2015 and 2016 teams catapulted the softball program into the spotlight among Michigan fans, capitalizing on a void left by underwhelming performances from the revenue sports. Over the course of the last two years, tickets to big games at Alumni Field have sold out in hours, game threads have exploded in length, and the names of the stars – Romero, Lawrence, Christner, Wagner, Susalla, Sweet, Betsa, and more – have become household names.
Now, it’s time to turn the page, and the Michigan softball machine will have to turn to younger talent to fill out the roster in 2017. Even with a number of returning stars there’s no mistaking the sense that we’re entering a new era, and things are going to look different. After several years as one of the nation’s top offensive teams, this year Michigan’s fortunes will most likely be determined by how far their ace pitcher can carry them. Especially in the post-season, when teams often lean on a single pitcher game in and game out, Michigan’s senior flame-throwing righty will be the driving force. If the last four years have been the Era of Sierra, 2017 should be the Year of Betsa.
Bidding farewell to the class of 2016 has not been easy, neither for fans who will miss watching living legends step to the Alumni Field plate week in and week out, nor for the coaches working overtime to find ways to replace their remarkable production. This remarkable group of young women won a staggering 210 games in their time at Michigan, 4 Big Ten regular season championships (3 outright), and 1 Big Ten Tournament Title. In the post-season, they earned 4 trips to both the regionals and the super-regionals, went to the WCWS 3 times, and reached the final game of the season in 2015.
In addition to role-players Olivia Richvalsky, Lauren Connell, and Mary Sbonek, the 2016 class included some true Michigan legends.
[cont’ after THE JUMP]
Two unconventional members of last year’s senior class were Kelsey Susalla and Sara Driesenga. Susalla came to Michigan as a walk-on, and all the odds were against her ever earning serious playing time. Susalla had no regard for the odds, however, earning spot duty as an underclassman before becoming a regular starter in her junior and senior years, during which she was among the team leaders in both batting average and home runs. Driesenga, meanwhile, was expected to depart in 2015, but had her career extended by injury. Up and down through her 5 years as a Wolverine, the right-handed pitcher was a key cog in multiple WCWS runs and provided a much-needed steadying force in the circle to complement Megan Betsa in 2016.
Sierra Lawrence, too often overlooked as the “other Sierra”, was a dominant force in the Michigan outfield all four years. Lawrence hit well over .300 for her entire career, but exploded as a senior, hitting .429 and reaching base in well over half her plate appearances. An ideal lead-off hitter, Lawrence was a holy terror on the base paths, going 44-45 on stolen-base attempts as an upper-classman. A first-team All-American as a senior, Sierra Lawrence was a defining figure of one of the most successful eras of Michigan softball.
Finally, we get to revisit the singular career of Sierra Romero in this space one last time. While I reviewed her career in detail in a tribute diary, I can’t resist mentioning a few choice items. Romero led the team in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, walks, runs, RBIs, and home runs all four years, became the inaugural member of the 300-300-300 club (runs, hits, RBIs), and earned both All-Big Ten and All-American honors in all four years. She also took home the Big Ten Player of the Year award 3 times and, in 2016, became the first Michigan player ever to be named National Player of the Year. Romero leaves Ann Arbor a legend, one of the greatest athletes in school history in any sport.
As always, I like to turn to MGoSoftball’s “hello” posts for the freshmen. It’s a small class this year, with only two scholarship players coming in, but both will have a chance to contribute early, especially Abby Skvarce, who will join what should be an open competition for the catcher position.
Madison Uden (IF):
Madison HAILS from Glendale, Arizona and Raymond S Kellis High School. She is a utility infielder. She broke her HS' records in hits (59), RBIs (58), triples (9), and BB (25).
Abby Skvarce (C):
She has a rocket for an arm and threw out my fastest runner. As a matter of fact, Abby was the only catcher to throw our my lead-off batter that season
Michigan will also be bringing in a pair of preferred walk-ons. Early on, expect to see them mainly in pinch-runner roles. Over time, however, they’ll have their shot to become the next Kelsey Susalla & crack the starting 9.
Thais Gonzalez (OF):
…hit .395 with nine doubles, two triples and two home runs for the state-champion Raiders in 2014.
Haley Hoogenraad (OF):
“Ever since I was a little kid, we would go to Michigan softball games, and we would sit in the stands, and I would say to my mom, ‘What if I got to come play here?” Hoogenraad said. “How awesome would that be?
In the Circle
Megan Betsa’s performance in the circle will set the tone for Team 40.
The departure of 5th-year senior Sara Driesenga makes senior Megan Betsa the only returning pitcher on the Michigan staff with any significant experience. While Blanco saw spot duty and Crockett got an inning in 2016, Betsa carried the load, especially in the biggest games, and will have to do so even more in 2017. The good news is that Michigan’s strike-out queen is more than up to the task. Having maintained an ERA under 2.00 for the last two years, Betsa has been one of the best in the nation over that span. She’s won two straight Big Ten Pitcher of the Year awards, and almost no one throws more strike-outs per 7 innings than Michigan’s right-handed flamethrower. In 2015, Betsa struggled in pressure situations, ceding time to Haylie Wagner at critical junctures. 2016 saw improvement in that regard, especially in the latter part of the season, but there’s still room for growth – Betsa’s struggles against Oklahoma were a key factor in derailing Michigan’s WCWS run. The main weaknesses in #3’s game are walks and home-runs, both a factor of some control issues that can crop up when her overpowering heat get out of hand. This season will determine whether Betsa goes down in history as a good pitcher or a great one. If she can perfect her control without losing her ability to produce Ks left and right, she has a chance to write her name among the stars.
While Betsa will be the ace, it just isn’t possible to survive in modern softball without at least one more pitcher throwing a good number of games. The Wolverines have two bullets in the chamber here – junior RHP/1B Tera Blanco and sophomore RHP Leah Crockett. Both came to Michigan with substantial high school accolades, but neither were immediately ready to transition to the college level. Blanco now enters her third year in Ann Arbor and still has yet to see substantial time in the circle for the Maize & Blue. Carol Hutchins has noted publicly that she didn’t bring her to Ann Arbor just to play first base, but even so, Blanco has yet to appear ready to handle a heavy part of the load. Crockett, meanwhile, came to college with a pile of potential, but the talks was that her mechanics needed a major overhaul. Both pitchers saw significant time in the circle during fall ball, and recent comments from Hutchins indicate that while Blanco is the #2, Crockett will be expected to contribute as well. While question marks on the pitching staff are always a concern, pitching coach Jennifer Brundage’s track record speaks for itself. Survey says that at least one of Blanco and Crockett will emerge into a serviceable Big Ten pitcher. If Michigan is to remain among the nation’s elite, however, we’ll need a bit more than “serviceable”. Keep a close eye on this pair in the early going to get a picture of what direction the season is going to go.
At the Plate
Tera Blanco broke out as a sophomore. Can she sustain her production while taking on a bigger role in the circle?
While the search for a #2 pitcher is important, Michigan can at least be confident in a returning ace. On the offensive side of the equation, by contrast, the Wolverines graduate their top 2 hitters, and three of their top 5. The void left by Susalla and the Sierras is going to be tremendously difficult to fill. The 2016 offense was among the best in the land, ranking #1 in on-base percentage, #2 in scoring, and #5 in batting average. It’s reasonable to expect the Wolverines to take a bit of a step back in 2017, but there’s enough returning talent to put together a strong unit nevertheless. Just how strong will depend on a number of factors.
Towards the top of the order, Michigan has a trio of returning stars, but all come with question marks. As a sophomore, Kelly Christner was among the best in the land, crushing 21 long bombs and hitting .393 on her way to first-team All-American honors. Significant slumps in 2016 saw her numbers slip last year, but she will still be a key cog in the Michigan machine going forward. Carol Hutchins has a long history of getting players to deliver their best softball in their senior seasons, and a return to 2015 form from Kelly Christner would be a huge step towards keeping Michigan on top in the new season.
Tera Blanco is also something of an X-factor on offense. After a productive 2015, Blanco exploded as a sophomore, finishing just below the Sierras in average numbers and second on the team in homers, and gaining first-team All-American recognition. As she transitions into an upperclassman leadership role, Blanco has the potential to be a multi-year All American and a candidate for both Big Ten and National Player of the Year awards. The questions with Blanco revolve around her role in the circle. Very few are capable of maintaining elite production on both sides of the ball, and Blanco may be more needed as a pitcher than a hitter this season. If she can do both at the highest level, she’ll become a Michigan legend just shy of Romero status. As long as she can produce at a solid level in each department, Michigan will be in good position for the season.
Finally, Abby Ramirez seems certain to make the move from turning over the line-up from the 9-spot to leading things off at the top of the order. Ramirez has excelled while flying under the radar, and is second among returning players in batting and on-base. As a slap hitter, Ramirez won’t bring the power to the lead-off spot that Lawrence did, but she can set the table with regularity. The only question for her is how she’ll do once pitchers make her the focus of their game planning. With the Sierras headlining a scorched-earth offense, it was easy for opposing defenses to forget about the diminutive slapper from Chicago. As a senior, likely leading off, Ramirez will need to maintain her production in the face of a new level of attention for the Wolverine offense to function properly.
|SS Abby Ramirez made the all-conference defensive team as a freshman and later bumped Sierra Romero to 2B. Last year she hit .380 from the 9th spot with a .485 OBP.|
After this top three, two more spots in the line-up seem locked up as well. Lindsay Monetmarano had something of a break-out year in 2016. A plugger hitting in the mid .200s as an underclassman, in her junior year she raised her game, hitting well over .300 with double digit long balls to boot. She should provide a good secondary punch to the offense after the top three have had their say. Aidan Falk’s spot in the starting 9 also seems assured, despite the fact that her numbers slipped a bit in her sophomore season as she was compelled to learn the catcher position on the fly. With any luck, one of the natural catchers on the team will claim that position, allowing Falk to go back to her natural role as a 1B/DP and focus entirely on keeping her big bat swinging.
After that, open spots abound for the Wolverine offense. Among returning players, Faith Canfield saw the most time towards the bottom of the order, and Alex Sobczak and Amanda “Panda” Vargas also got significant run. All played well at times, but none broke out in a big way. Taylor Swearingen will certainly be in the mix, looking to recapture her form from the 2015 season when she hit 9 home runs (she didn’t hit any in 2016), and Katie Alexander might be in line for an opportunity as well, especially if she can win the battle for the catcher position (see below). Freshmen Abby Skvarce and Madison Uden were both adept hitters in high school, and there are enough open spots in the lineup that they will have opportunities to contribute early on. When asked to name potential break-out players in 2017, Hutchins cited Canfield, Swearingen, and Vargas, so those are the names to watch out of the gate.
With only 5 of the 9 places in the order locked up, we should expect Hutchins to do a fair amount of juggling in the early going, settling into a steady order around the start of league play. Having 4 open slots is a concern, especially when there are question marks towards the top of the order as well. The good news is that Michigan has plenty of bullets in the chamber, and can afford a whiff or two, especially if there are some break-out players to compensate. There’s almost no way a team could lose the Sierras and Susalla and not take a step back offensively, especially since, over the last two seasons, Michigan has lit the softball world on fire from the plate. This should still be a strong offense, though, and if we do get those break-out seasons, there may even be times you could be forgiven for thinking it was still the Year of the Pizza.
In the Field
Lawrence’s eye-popping athleticism will be missed in the outfield.
This is always the hardest section of the preview for me to write, as softball defense tends to consist of a lot of low-variance, low-impact plays, punctuated by a few high-impact, borderline-inexplicable errors. Never having coached or played the sport, it’s difficult for me to look at a player and identify defensive failings apart from the obvious (“don’t drop the fly ball!”). That said, it doesn’t take an expert to note that Michigan’s fielding percentage of .978, good for fourth nationally a year ago, was absolutely excellent. How much of that will translate to 2017 is anyone’s guess.
Sierra Lawrence & Kelsey Susalla provided a level of experience in the outfield that the Wolverines won’t be able to access in the new year, and Lawrence’s singular athleticism will be especially missed. We’ll probably see a number of plays this year that, while not being errors, would nevertheless have been made by the last season’s steady seniors. The infield as well will see some shake-ups, as Romero’s departure leaves a vacancy at 2B, and a potential Blanco move to pitcher could free up the 1B position as well (hopefully to be taken by Aidan Falk).
For the second year running, the real question on defense is at catcher. Sobczak, Alexander, and Falk all saw time at catcher, but none seriously impressed. In the end, Aidan Falk proved to be the steadiest option, cutting down on passed balls and other technical errors when compared with the other two options. At the same time, her inability to punish opposing runners for attempting to steal bases was a glaring hole in her game, especially compared to departed sniper Lauren Sweet. This soft spot was ruthlessly exposed by the faster teams on the schedule, as singles frequently turned into doubles a couple pitches later. This year, freshman Abby Skvarce will make it a 4-way battle for the catcher position, as she comes in with a reputation for having a “rocket arm” according to MGoSoftball (who is in a position to know, having coached against Skvarce’s team and watched her gun down speedsters before). The hope here would be for one of the natural catchers to lock down the position, allowing Falk to play 1B/DP and focus on her offense. If this battle can be settled satisfactorily early on, then we’ll be in good shape defensively. If it proves to be an ongoing issue for the second straight season, however, there could be more than a few “tear your hair out” moments, especially against teams with elite speed on the base paths.
The Wolverines come into the 2017 sporting a shiny #6/#6 ranking (USA Today/NFCA Coaches, ESPN/USA Softball), but they’ll have to work hard to maintain it. Carol Hutchins has always been a firm believer in the value of facing the toughest competition early in the season, both as a résumé builder and as a means of bringing the team together and forging them through fire. 2017 is no exception, as the Wolverines will go on a number of road trips to face the nation’s best before returning to the Midwest for conference play.
Things get serious fast for Michigan, who will face a #4/#3 Florida team that has had their number in recent years (along with the number of just about every other team in America) on day 2 of the season, with a match-up against #25/#24 USF just a couple hours after. The following weekend, Michigan will travel to Raleigh, NC to face NC State & #22/#22 Notre Dame twice each, with the Irish looking for revenge from last year’s 6-2 dismissal from the Ann Arbor regional. Perennial powerhouses #3/#4 Florida State and Arizona State (RV/RV) await at the Mary Nutter Classic in California along with #19/#18 Texas A&M, after which Michigan will stay out West for the Judi Garman Classic, featuring another match-up with the Sun Devils alongside tests against a solid #21/#21 Baylor squad and the ultimate in softball royalty, #8/#8 UCLA. The team can’t sleep on a tradition rich Cal State Fullerton (RV/RV) team either. Michigan will make one more trip out of town, journeying to #20/#20 Kentucky to play a few opponents who should be over-matched, along with the UK Wildcats themselves, a consistent tournament team in recent years. Finally, Michigan will take a tune-up week within the friendly confines of the Wilpon Complex, with single games against Bowling Green and Eastern Michigan sandwiching a 3-game set against Kent State, before digging in for conference play. This slate should provide plenty of opportunities for the team to gel and for the wheat and the chaff to separate out in the face of some adversity. Given the turnover from 2016, a few losses are probably inevitable. As long as these are balanced by a handful of wins against elite opposition, Michigan should still be in a fine place as far as hosting post-season play is concerned.
Turning to the Big Ten schedule, once again you simply have to scratch you head and wonder what on earth Delaney’s minions are up to. For the second straight year, the #1 series that Big Ten softball fans want to see, pitting the #16/#14 Minnesota Golden Gophers against our Michigan Wolverines, is simply not going to take place. While the two teams have dominated the conference in recent years, sharing all of the regular season and tournament crowns between them over the last 3 years, somehow the geniuses at HQ have not cottoned on to the fact that this is a compelling match-up.
After the Gophers, there’s a major step down to the next tier of Big Ten softball. Nebraska and OSU received votes in both polls, Northwestern got a few from the coaches, and Penn State had a solid conference season a year ago, but none are likely to challenge for the title. Michigan gets to take a pass on the Cornhuskers, but will face the Nittany Lions and Wildcats at home in the first two weeks of the conference season before hitting the road to take on the Buckeyes. Michigan’s chances at a 10th straight regular season crown will depend heavily upon these first three series (the Gophers schedule, by contrast, is a bit more back loaded). After the opening gauntlet, Michigan gets a home and home against Michigan State, interrupted by a trip to take on a dire Maryland team, followed by a journey through the mushy middle of Big Ten softball, featuring Wisconsin, Indiana, and a season-ending trip to scenic Piscataway. If Michigan can get through the first three weeks with no more than a couple of losses, another conference crown is within reach. Minnesota, led by senior star Sara Groenewegen, has to be thinking that this is their year to break through, so the margin for error is going to be tiny. It should be a battle right down to the end, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself keeping a close eye on the Minnesota/PSU series on the final weekend.
Hutch is already in the history books; look for her to add to her legend this year.
Step one in this section is to review last year’s predictions – let’s take a look at how I did in this space a year ago.
“Michigan enters the season ranked #2 in the nation, so we won’t be sneaking up on anyone, and a few hiccups are all but inevitable. Nevertheless, only the absolute best pitchers in America will be able to slow down our dominant offense. Look for Michigan to emerge from the non-conference schedule ranked in the top-10, likely the top-5, and boasting a number of high-quality wins to burnish the tournament résumé.”
This was pretty much spot on. Michigan endured setbacks against Florida and Washington, both in the top ten, but also collected two decisive road wins against FSU, won barn-burners against Oklahoma and UCLA, and crushed the life out of Missouri. The Wolverines were #2 in the country at the start of Big Ten play.
“Michigan has won 8 consecutive Big Ten regular season titles. There’s no way I can pick against them doing so once again in 2016 … As long as they don’t all go cold at the same time, Michigan should emerge on top after the conference grind.”
Another hit. Early losses to Northwestern & Nebraska put this one in doubt, but Michigan ripped off 16 straight conference wins to lock up their 9th straight Big Ten regular season crown.
“Michigan can expect to be in position to host both a regional and a super-regional. Losing at either of these stages would be a major, major disappointment. Once you get to Oklahoma City, all bets are off, as only the best teams reach that level. That said, last year Michigan and Florida were clearly a cut above the rest of the field at the WCWS. Florida lost their best player, while Michigan returns much more. Make of that what you will…”
Partial credit. Michigan did indeed host (and win) both the regional and super-regional. Entering the WCWS, optimism was high after Florida was shockingly upset at home in the super-regionals. That melted away quickly, as the Wolverines were overwhelmed by Oklahom’s high-powered offense, and then the bats went cold in an elimination against FSU.
“[Carol Hutchins] needs only 25 wins to pass Margie Wright on the all-time list. This is a lock to happen; the only question is where she’ll be in relation to Mike Candrea … Look for Hutch to spend at least part of the season as the winningest coach the sport has ever seen.”
Spot on, albeit a pretty easy prediction to make. Hutch further secured her place in history on a Saturday afternoon in Indiana, becoming the all-time winningest coach in NCAA softball, a distinction she stills holds.
“I expect Sierra Romero to cement her status as the greatest softball player ever to don the Maize & Blue … win Big Ten Player of the Year for a third time, be named a first-team All American for the third straight season, and … claim softball’s Heisman Trophy, the USA Collegiate Softball Player of the Year Award.”
A hit as well, and perhaps my favorite one of the year. For the first time in school history, a Michigan player was crowned as the best in the nation, a fitting capstone on a career for the ages.
Now, onto predictions for the new year. Last year I was able to be pretty bold – the only real question was whether that team would be merely great or national champions. This year, we could see anything from having to go on the road for regionals to another trip to the WCWS. It says here:
1. Expect the non-conference schedule to be a bit rougher this year than last, especially when a re-structured Michigan batting order has to face elite pitching. If Michigan is able to stay a good cut above 50-50 in games against highly-ranked teams, I’ll be reasonably satisfied, especially if they can avoid picking up any ugly losses. There’s no reason this team shouldn’t be on track to host a regional (top-16), but cracking the top-5 might be too much to ask.
2. Two-way battle for the Big Ten title. The toughest part of these predictions is projecting the Big Ten. I don’t see anyone challenging Michigan & Minnesota’s dominance as the queens of the conference. Picking between the two is tough, as both return stars but also suffer losses from strong 2016 outfits. This year the schedule is a bit more even, unlike in recent years where Minnesota has indisputably faced a tougher slate than the Wolverines. It’s really a guessing game until we see the teams take the field a few times, but I’m high on the Groenewegen-led Gophers, even though the pollsters put us ahead of them. If a second starting pitcher doesn’t emerge and the Wolverines find themselves heavily Betsa-dependent, they might be better-suited to making a run in the Big Ten tournament (held in Ann Arbor this year) than to grinding out the 20+ wins that will likely be needed to pick up the regular season title.
3. Home for the playoffs. Once we get to the NCAA tournament, I expect Michigan to host a regional, although that’s not a holy lock in the way it has been for the last couple seasons. Even so, I believe in Betsa’s arm to get us enough quality wins to impress the committee that much at least. With all the question marks on the roster, I can’t go so far as to predict a super-regional seed, though, and a WCWS appearance will require some break-out seasons. (As a note, the last time I said that, the 2015 season happened, so you never know.)
4. Hutch hits 1.5k. Finally, a freebie: needing only 16 wins to reach the 1,500 plateau, and holding a 16-game lead on #2 Mike Candrea, Carol Hutchins is a cinch to become the first softball coach in NCAA history to reach that particular benchmark. Already the winningest coach in both softball history and Michigan history, Hutch just adds to her legend with each passing year.
Another year of packed stands awaits at Alumni Field!