2015 Softball Season Preview

Submitted by South Bend Wolverine on January 31st, 2015 at 5:05 PM

Michigan Softball 2015 Season Preview

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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!

Departures

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.

New Faces

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

Nikki Wald – http://www.mgoblue.com/sports/w-softbl/mtt/nikki_wald_920655.html

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.

Schedule

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.

Bold Predictions

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!

Comments

pearlw

January 31st, 2015 at 5:28 PM ^

Good post...

The buzz in the fall seemed to surround Montemarano being a vastly improved hitter. In fact, she was hitting behind Romero in the fall games. They had Romero hit in 2 spot for a couple games and in 3 spot for another game...all of those times she had Monetmarano behind her.

Also, they had Blanco hitting in the DP spot in several of the games so she may be in line for a lot of playing time even when not pitching. She struggled a little at the plate but did have a HR in the fall.

South Bend Wolverine

February 1st, 2015 at 1:52 AM ^

Thanks - it is a pleasure putting this together.  Good to hear that about Montemarano.  Now that you mention it, it does ring a bell.  Looking back at the "Fall Super Regional" against Kentucky, she went 4-10, drew a walk, and drove in a couple of runs batting behind Romo.  Hopefully the buzz is right and she can continue that production.  It would be a huge boost if she makes the leap!

Sierra Lawrence, incidentally, was the lead-off hitter in all three games, so that's probably where she'll be at least to start the season.  Should've looked that up before posting, oh well.

trueblueintexas

January 31st, 2015 at 11:04 PM ^

Thank you both for this great season prep. I love watching Coach Hutch's teams play. They almost always show great energy and never give up if they get in a hole. Losing the top of the order will hurt and I expect a lot of juggling of the lineup until they can get it figured out. But the pitching, infield, and at least left field defense have a chance to be spectacular. I can't wait!

Uber_Jones

February 3rd, 2015 at 8:40 AM ^

What coach Hutch has built is amazing, A national power in a warm weather sport. Interestingly enough she recruits heavily in the Midwest, she does it with top tier midwest players, while other schools in the B1G heavily recruit the west and get 2nd tier Cali, Arizona and Texas kids. When she does recruit southern or western kids they are top tier kids being recruit by all the powers.

Hutch is a softball rock star.

bfull24

February 3rd, 2015 at 11:27 AM ^

As someone who only "discovered" Michigan softball late into last season and subsequently got pretty hooked, I appreciate the great overview to get us primed for the upcoming season. Of course I remember players like Romero, but this was a great refresher on Montemarano, Lawrence, Sweet, Wagner, Driesenga, and the newcomers. I am actually one of the MGoBlog photographers and I am already getting excited to cover a game or two this year. Thanks again for the wonderful preview!