In her midgame interview, amidst the sweltering heat in Tempe, Ariz., facing a Arizona State pitcher who shut out her team earlier in the season, Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins talked about each player doing their part.
But as the night wore on, it was clear that the Wolverines’ hopes of a super regional appearance were riding squarely on the shoulders of sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero.
Michigan’s best player was at the center of the action Saturday.
In the first game against the ninth-seeded Sun Devils, the Big Ten Player of the Year knocked in Michigan’s only run but was also credited with the error that helped Arizona State tie and take the lead.
After the ball bounced past her glove, Romero nearly injured herself on the play. As the trainer worked over her arm, there was a moment when it was unclear if she would leave the game. One look at Romero's face made it clear, though: She was mad.
In some ways, it has been an uncharacteristic weekend for one of the best hitters in college softball, who has gone a combined 3-for-9 in three games. But when Romero approached the plate with the bases loaded in the Wolverines’ second matchup against San Diego State, she let everyone know what the hype was all about.
Romero’s towering grand slam to dead-center field in the fourth inning was hardly her longest shot or best cut of the season, but it may have been her most important. When Michigan met the Aztecs on Friday, the team failed to put the game away, giving up three runs in the seventh inning. Romero’s long ball put the game out of reach for good on Saturday.
The shot was a much-needed assurance for a Wolverines squad that has been struggling to find an identity since stumbling in the latter weeks of conference play. Pitching struggles, hitting slumps have plagued the team wherever it has traveled, and Saturday’s late game against San Diego State was the first time Michigan has strung together a complete game in nearly a month.
Romero came into the weekend batting .510, the only hitter in the country batting above .500. The weight of postseason expectations was visible in her game, though, as she chased first pitches out of the strike zone and fanned at the few hittable balls she saw.
But in her sophomore season, Romero has become more than just a potent hitter in the Wolverines’ lineup. Romero is the heart and soul of the team this season, and never did she show that more than in Michigan’s first three games of the NCAA Tournament.
In the first game against San Diego State and in the game against Arizona State, Romero struggled, and the Wolverines didn’t look like themselves. Instead, they lacked poise in the field and were unsteady in the circle.
But it only takes one swing to reverse fortunes, and suddenly Michigan has a shot at advancing to the Super Regional. The path to the next round requires the team to beat Arizona State twice in a row, a task that will be difficult against the Sun Devils’ dominant pitching, but Romero gave the Wolverines a chance.
This weekend, and all season, Sierra Romero has propelled Michigan to great heights. Sunday, in one last-ditch attempt to keep the season alive, the Wolverines’ hopes will again ride on Romero’s bat.