Softball Regional Preview & Season Review

Submitted by South Bend Wolverine on May 19th, 2017 at 12:37 PM

2017 Michigan Softball Season Review & Regional Preview

THE ESSENTIALS

WHAT

NCAA Softball Regional

WHERE

Husky Softball Stadium, Seattle, WA

WHEN

Friday-Sunday, May 19-21

TV

ESPN2 & ESPN3

THE SCHEDULE

The NCAA regional is a double-elimination tournament, so the only team Michigan is guaranteed to play is Fresno State; if all goes chalk, Michigan would play Washington in Game 3 and go from there. (All times Eastern, note that only the time of the first game each day is fixed.  Other games may start later, depending on the duration of earlier match-ups.)

Time

Game

Friday, May 19

 

9:00 p.m.

Game 1 -- #2 seed Michigan vs. #3 seed Fresno State (ESPN2)

11:30 p.m.

Game 2 -- #1 seed Washington vs. #4 seed Montana (ESPN3)

Saturday, May 20 

 

5:00 PM

Game 3 -- Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner (TV TBD)

7:30 PM

Game 4 -- Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser (TV TBD)

11:00 PM

Game 5 -- Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 winner (TV TBD)

Sunday, May 21

 

7:00 PM

Game 6 -- Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner (TV TBD)

9:30 PM

Game 7 -- Game 6 winner vs. Game 6 loser (if necessary) (TV TBD) 

 

Season Review

It is a testament to the stunning success of the 2015 and 2016 teams that this year has felt, at times, like something of a slog.  After winning 60 games in 2015 and 52 in 2016, with just 15 losses over the two years combined, this year’s mark of 41-11-1 has felt downright mediocre at times.  One could easily be forgiven for forgetting that Michigan only narrowly missed out on hosting post-season play for the 3rd straight year, and ranks in the top-25 in most offensive categories.  Success has a way of breeding high, even unreasonable, expectations, though, and there is no doubt that 2017 has been a bit of a reality-check after two years spent on the heights.  Before looking ahead to this weekend’s opposition, let’s take a look back at the ups and downs that brought us to this point.

As has happened all too often over the last few years of UM softball, the season began with heartbreak at the hands of the Florida Gators, who are beginning to look a lot like the Alabama of the sport.  Despite picking up a run against the usually unhittable Kelly Barnhill, and despite having runners 60 feet away from crossing home for a walk-off win in the 8th & 9th innings, the Wolverines couldn’t get it done, falling 2-1 to the eventual #1 national seed.

Each of Michigan’s early-season invitationals would be marred by frustration at the hands of top competition.  While the Wolverines weed-whacked their way through the weaker opponents on the schedule, they dropped games against ranked opponents like USF, Texas A&M, UCLA, Baylor, and Kentucky, along with a loss to unranked Notre Dame (38 in the RPI at season’s end).  The only ranked team Michigan was able to top was Arizona State, victims of 3-0 and 2-0 shut-outs at the hands of the Wolverines.  Along the way, another major frustration came in the form of a tie against Florida State.  After squandering a 1-run lead in the 7th, the game was called halfway through the 8th due to FSU’s flight plans.

After the ritual slaughter of a few MAC opponents to celebrate the team’s arrival at Alumni Field after over a month spent on the road, the Wolverines turned their attention to the Big Ten schedule.  The wins started to pile up, but a number of ominous signs continued to loom.  Tera Blanco had still not emerged into a top-level pitcher, and had to be lifted in favor of senior Megan Betsa on several occasions.  Betsa continued to prove herself to be an elite pitcher, but also piled up a massive pitch-count – a combination of having to throw 2 or more games every weekend and a strike-out based approach which often results in long, battling at-bats.  On the offensive side of the ball, production continued to be uneven at best.  Weak run-support was a major factor in a 5-0 loss at OSU, a 2-1 slip-up at Maryland, and – one of the lowest points of the season – a 1-0, 11-inning defeat at Wisconsin, in which Megan Betsa threw 7 innings worth of no-hit softball, surrendered one hit in the 8th, and then finally gave up a walk-off solo shot in the 11th.

Carol Hutchins was furious with the lack of production (and perhaps the lack of leadership as well), and sent 5 regular starters to the bench for the early innings of the following game.  The team got the hint, and when the starters were re-inserted, they went on a tear.  Wisconsin went down 10-2 in 5 innings that day and were blasted off their home field early again in the rubber game, falling 8-0 in 5.  Finally the bats seemed to be awake, as Michigan tore through the remainder of their schedule, outscoring Indiana 17-2 over a three game series, brushing aside Western Michigan 8-0 in 5, and finally, giving the football team a run for their money in the “Rutgers blow-out” department, winning 6-1, 19-1 (5 inn.), and 20-0 (5 inn.) in Piscataway.

While the 20-3 conference record that Michigan put up was better than several of the marks put up during the 9-year conference championship streak, it wouldn’t be good enough to keep pace with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who are in the midst of the greatest season in school history.  Nevertheless, optimism was high heading into the Big Ten tournament, as the second-seeded Wolverines prepared to host the event for the first time in over a decade.  Even better, Michigan was set to face a mediocre MSU squad they hadn’t lost to in years.  Things were looking good as the Maize & Blue held on to a 4-2 lead heading into the 7th, but an uncharacteristically erratic inning from Megan Betsa lead to a 5-4 loss and an early exit from the tourney.

In just a few short minutes last Friday, a narrative of a hot-and-cold team that had found its stride and was ready for a deep post-season run was thrown into disarray.  Questions now abound as to who the true Michigan is.  Are these the Wolverines that were one hit away from wins against Florida and Florida State, that have one of the best offenses in the nation, and that obliterated almost all of their conference opposition?  Or are they the team that slips up against the Marylands and MSUs of the world, and can’t get past ranked opponents?  Only time – and the NCAA regional – will tell.

Players to Watch

 Michigan brings a series of stars to the table this year, both offensively and defensively.  Below, we’ll take a look at two of the most important offensive leaders along with Michigan’s unquestioned ace in the circle.

Kelly Christner

Kelly Christner burst onto the scene as a sophomore, hitting a blistering .393 and crushing 21 home runs en route to First-Team All-American honors.  After a dip in production as a junior, Christner has found her way back to elite status as a senior.  While she hasn’t been able to replicate her power numbers from the Year of the Pizza two seasons back, as a senior she is hitting .414 for the year, reaching base in over half her at-bats.  Compared to her blazing start to the season, Christner took a bit of a step back in Big Ten play, hitting .375 with an OBP just under .500.  Even so, she is still one of the team’s most important offensive pieces and provides an essential element of senior leadership in the batting order.  Lately she has seemed more comfortable hitting from the lead-off spot, and her status as the team leader in stolen bases makes her a good candidate to start trouble on the base paths.  If she can produce at a high level, it will set a great tone for the rest of the team throughout the regional.

Faith Canfield

Another hitter to keep an eye on is sophomore utility player Faith Canfield.  As a freshman, Canfield was in and out of the line-up, hitting just .268, and she looked only incrementally improved in the early going of her second season in Ann Arbor.  Around the time conference play began, however, something clicked for Canfield, and she laid waste to Big Ten pitching, hitting a Romero-esque .462 in league play and slugging just a notch under .750.  On a team that lacks the power hitting of the last two years, Canfield – tied for the team lead in both doubles (with Aidan Falk) and home-runs (with Kelly Christner) – is one of the leading candidates to put the hurt on a ball and drive in a few runs.  Her aversion to strike-outs is another advantage; with only 7 on the year, you can count on her putting the ball in play when she steps to the plate.

Megan Betsa

No single player has been more critical to keeping Michigan softball on track in 2017 than senior RHP Megan Betsa.  Of her staggering 1,165 career strike-outs, 376 have come in 2017, her best statistical year as a Wolverine.  Her 23-8 record does not do full justice to her contributions to the team, as she faced all the toughest non-conference opponents, earned 5 saves in relief of Blanco, and has pitched both Friday and Sunday throughout Big Ten play.  Any concern arising from the shaky 7th inning against MSU in the Big Ten tournament should be balanced by her 1.31 ERA for the season (a sterling 0.86 in Big Ten play).

Betsa has been a major contributor to Michigan softball for four years now, pitching meaningful innings, including post-season games, each time around.  She is clearly among the nation’s elite statistically, leading the nation in strike-outs, ranking 3rd in strike-outs per 7 innings, 5th in shut-outs, 8th in saves, and 10th in hits allowed per 7 innings.  Her name is all over the Michigan record book as well, as she currently sits 3rd in career Ks and is tied with Haylie Wagner in 3rd place for career wins at 100 exactly.  Legacies are about more than stats, though, and at the beginning of this season, I proclaimed this the “Year of Betsa”.  A deep post-season run on the strength of her right arm in her final year would provide the perfect cement for her enduring position among the legends of Michigan softball.

Regional Opponents 

After back-to-back seasons hosting regional play, Michigan once again has to hit the road for the first round of the NCAA tournament.  Because of the tournament structure, Fresno State is the only opponent Michigan is guaranteed to face, but at least one showdown with Washington seems very likely, and a clash with Montana could come up as well if there’s an upset somewhere in the bracket.

Fresno State

We’ll start with an overview of Michigan’s Friday night opponent, the Bulldogs of Fresno State.  Despite finishing tied for 3rd in the Mountain West conference (which does not hold a conference tournament), FSU (NTFSU) managed to earn an at-large bid into the field of 64, narrowly edging out conference rivals San Diego State for one of the final spots in the field.  Fresno State challenged themselves in the non-conference schedule, taking on an array of major conference teams.  While they took it on the chin more than once, their aggressive scheduling strategy probably helped secure a spot in the tournament, as they ended the year 6-8 against the RPI top-50, and a highly-successful 5-2 against the RPI 26-50.  This is a team Michigan beats comfortably on a good day, but if there’s any hangover from the disappointment in the Big Ten tournament, they’re good enough to cause problems.

Looking at the Bulldogs’ line-up, the #1 threat is clearly Morgan Howe, who is hitting .438 on the year and slugging well over .600.  She brings a bit of home run power as well, having sent 6 over the wall this year.  After her, Malia Rivers seems to be the other prominent on-base threat, batting .355.  Unlike Howe, though, Rivers hasn’t hit a single homer and only has 4 extra-base hits all season, indicating a singles-based, small-ball profile.  No other Bulldogs are hitting meaningfully over .300, although they do have a few home run threats in Vanessa Hernandez (7 HR), Savannah McHellon (10 HR), and Lindsey Willmon (9 HR).  All three are strike-out-prone, however, especially McHellon, which could spell trouble with Betsa in the circle for the Wolverines.

In the circle, it’s a one-woman show for Fresno State, with the unfortunately-named Kamalani Dung starting more than twice as many games as anyone else and pitching almost 4 times as many innings as the next pitcher in line.  She leads the team with a 2.17 ERA, and her 202/91 K/BB numbers indicate a pitcher who likes to go for the K.  After her, Savannah McHellon sees the most action, but is a major step back.  In addition to her 4.32 ERA, McHellon has exhibited significant control problems, giving up more BBs than she picks up Ks.

Washington

Hosts and headliners of the regional, the Washington Huskies have been a major power at times over the last decade.  2009 National Champions, the Huskies are eager to return to the WCWS for the first time since 2013 (Washington ended the Wolverines’ season that year in a 4-1 affair).  As the #6 national seed in this year’s NCAA tournament, the Huskies will be a formidable opponent for Michigan to try to knock off.  Unlike some power-conference teams, the Huskies took on a decent helping of non-conference challenges, and earned wins against quality opponents including Auburn, Oklahoma, and, notably from a Big Ten perspective, Minnesota – the Gophers fell twice to the Huskies, 3-2 and 9-0.  In the PAC-12, the Huskies faced tough opposition on a weekly basis and earned key series wins against Arizona State, Oregon, and Utah.  They also swept the Crimson Tide during a break from league play.  The Huskies will come into this regional battle-tested and hungry to re-establish themselves among softball’s elite teams.

No one player stands alone atop the Huskies batting order, but with 4 separate players hitting right around .350, there’s plenty of power there.  Casey Stangel and Ali Aguilar are particularly notable in that group, as both have belted double-digit home runs on the year, as has Morganne Flores, a .338 hitter.  Stangel in particular is a bit strike-out prone, so Betsa may be able to exploit that a bit, but she makes up for it by slugging a team-leading .638.  Aguilar is a bit of a sore spot defensively for the Huskies, with 11 errors on the year, but she’s as tough an out as you can ask for at the plate.  Top to bottom, there just aren’t many weak spots in this line-up.  If the expected encounter between Michigan and Washington happens (and it’s likely to happen 2-3 times), the goal will be more to scatter hits than to prevent them entirely.  A few runs are likely to score in any event, so run support will be vital in this one.

In the circle, it’s all about sophomore Taran Alvelo.  Alvelo’s numbers aren’t eye-popping, but they’re very strong, especially when you consider that she’s been handling the bulk of the workload for a PAC-12 team.  With an ERA of 1.90 and a K/BB ratio of 2.57, Alvelo isn’t necessarily a dominating pitcher, but she gets the job done more often than not.  After their ace, the Huskies can trot out either of a pair of very similar back-ups.  Freshman Samantha Manti and junior Madi Schreyer have both started 13 games, and have ERAs at or near 3.  Schreyer has more control problems than Manti, with only 5 fewer BBs than Ks on the year.  This is a set of pitchers that Michigan can hit, but it’s not going to be easy to put up big numbers.  Given the strength of the Washington offense, the Wolverines will have to find a way to string hits together more than once if they want to get out of Seattle with the season still alive.

Montana

Michigan will only face the Grizz in the event of an upset somewhere along the line, but stranger things have happened.  Simply put, Montana is not an especially good softball team.  After finishing 2nd in the Big Sky conference in the regular season, the Grizz beat regular season champions Weber State twice in the conference tournament to secure their spot in the tournament.  Sitting at 124 in the RPI, Montana is an order of magnitude lower down than anyone else in the region, and their schedule gives a clue as to why.  After barely challenging themselves at all in the non-conference schedule (a couple of Ws over UNLV were the closest things they had to signature wins), they were pretty average in conference play as well, only sweeping two opponents prior to the conference tournament.  This looks to be a classic case of a team from a weak conference who is mainly just happy to be here.

Montana does have a pair of decent hitters atop their stat sheet, with Bethany Olea and Delene Colburn both hitting over .400 – Colburn has also jacked 14 long balls on the season.  No one else is hitting much over .300, however, and only one other player (Sydney Stites) has more than 5 homers.  Michaela Hood is the usual starter in the circle, and her 2.15 ERA and better than 3-1 K/BB ratio are respectable.  Colleen Driscoll and Maddy Stensby are the other two prominent pitchers, both putting up fairly non-descript numbers – Driscoll is a bit better overall, but more likely to give up a dinger.  Severe strength of schedule caveats apply to all these numbers, of course.  If Michigan ends up facing Montana and struggles much at all, it should be considered a major warning sign for what’s to come.

Overall

This is about as good of a situation as Michigan could have asked for after flaming out against MSU in the conference tournament.  True, it’s a tougher regional to get shipped to than some we’ve seen in the past, but it’s still a winnable one – we’re not talking about getting sent to Florida or Arizona here.  What’s more, if the team does advance, the most likely opponent would be the Utah Utes, who had an up-and-down non-conference season before picking up some impressive wins in PAC-12 play, highlighted by a 3-game sweep of UCLA and a series win over Arizona.  A trip back to the WCWS is still very much in play, but the team needs to leave their struggles behind and fire on all cylinders.  More than anything, the Wolverines will need their senior ace to deliver the best performance of her career.  If that happens, a trip to Oklahoma City for the 3rd straight year could still beckon for Team 40.

Comments

whidbeywolverine

May 19th, 2017 at 3:18 PM ^

Can't get down to UW tonight, but hopefully Sat or Sun.  Weather here is FINALLY gonna be awesome this weekend, and lots of alums in Seattle area, so should be plenty of help for our ladies on the Montlake Cut this weekend!  Go Blue!

SaigonBlue

May 19th, 2017 at 6:52 PM ^

Here's hoping the bats will be alive this weekend. If so, as you noted, this team can play with anyone.

One sidenote on the "unfortunately-named" Kamalani Dung: She is from Hawai'i, and is obviously of Asian descent. If her family name "Dung" is Vietnamese, which is a very common name in Viet Nam (both first and last), it would be pronounced either "Yoom" (southern dialect) or "Zoom" (northern dialect). I am not sure how she pronounces her famly name, but both of the aforementioned are much more palatable options over the English alternative.

BursleysFinest

May 19th, 2017 at 6:15 PM ^

Seems like Michigan should have been seeded this year?    

Anyway, if UM can get out of this bracket, I like the odds over Utah.   However that next round against presumably Oregon looks like a big ask.

South Bend Wolverine

May 20th, 2017 at 12:09 AM ^

I think our seeding was about right.  We have a solid record, but not that many "quality wins".  Two over ASU only goes so far in the grand scheme of things, and we picked up a couple bad losses, too - Maryland & MSU.  Considering this was always going to be a bit of a rebuilding year, not too bad, although the close calls in some of the big games - Florida & FSU rankle.  One more hit in each of those and this whole season looks very different.