- Patrick Barron/Daily
By Alejandro Zúñiga, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 10, 2013
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How does a softball program like Michigan’s win five consecutive Big Ten titles? How does it become the first school east of the Mississippi River to win a national championship? And what draws top recruits to Ann Arbor?
It all starts with the coaching.
The crowd was sparse on Tuesday afternoon with a chill in the air, when the Wolverines welcomed intrastate rival Western Michigan. The Wolverines were halfway through their season, but it was only their eighth home game. The winter temperatures force the program to schedule almost all of its non-conference games thousands of miles south, and even still, weather postponed a pair of contests. A light drizzle rained down on freshman left fielder Sierra Lawrence when she stepped to the plate and lifted a sacrifice fly out to deep center, and as the Georgia native trotted back to the dugout, she looked up at the gloomy sky.
So why Michigan?
“The coaches were just amazing, and I wanted to play for them and allow them to make me a better player,” Lawrence said. “The environment here was just great.”
Before the game, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins stepped into the team huddle and delivered a simple message: Play hard. And they did. They played hard for themselves, for the name on the front of their jersey and for the coaching staff that gave them the opportunity to compete at the collegiate level. Hutchins doesn’t like to talk about it, but the 29-year veteran recently became just the third collegiate softball coach to win 1,300 games. Maybe that’s why Lawrence chose Michigan.
“You don’t want to go somewhere and trust the coaching staff and then they leave,” Lawrence said. “Hutch and the rest of the coaching staff have been here for awhile.”
The coach fondly known as “Hutch” has led the softball program for longer than any of her current players have been alive. She’s humble, passionate and, despite graduating from Michigan State, devoted to the Wolverines. She’s had the opportunity to represent the United States, coaching the U.S. National and Elite teams, but Hutchins still prefers donning the maize and blue.
“There’s nothing like Michigan,” she said. “I gotta tell ya, there’s nothing like Michigan. This place really gets in your heart.”
Hutchins’ love for the University and her players transcends the normal confines of a relationship. Hunched over and glaring into the batter’s box in the third-base coach’s area during a recent series against Ohio State, Hutchins occasionally glanced over into the visiting team’s dugout. There, she saw a familiar face, heard a familiar voice. It was Kelly Kovach Schoenly, her former All-American pitcher and a former colleague who was now coaching the Buckeyes.
To Hutchins, every Michigan player who walks through the glass door into the Donald R. Shepherd Softball Building is a member of her family. And it’s not a relationship she takes lightly. Yes, Schoenly’s picture hangs on the wall, one of dozens of tributes to former All Americans. But her number — and almost everyone else's — is stored in Hutchins’s phone, and the two communicate regularly.
“They’re all my kids. They’re my family,” Hutchins said. “I’m like a proud mother.”
Despite wearing scarlet and gray, Schoenly has plenty of reasons to feel welcomed back to Ann Arbor. As a Wolverine in the 1990s, she earned All-American honors, was twice named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year and was a three-time all-conference selection. After she graduated, she planned on becoming a teacher, but Hutchins gave her a spot on the coaching staff and later helped her earn jobs at Miami (Ohio) and Ohio State. Schoenly hasn’t looked back.
“Hutch had such an impact on me, if I even have half that impact on the girls that I’m coaching, I’ll feel like I did a great job,” Schoenly said. “I’m thankful that my life took me through Michigan and through Hutch. She gave me that push and that opportunity you don’t always get when you’re 22 years old. I look to her as a mentor.”
The Wolverines swept the three-game series against Ohio State due in part to junior right fielder Nicole Sappingfield. In high school, the California native wasn’t even considering playing college softball because she didn’t know much about it. Then, she was discouraged by stories of Michigan’s dismal winter weather. Sappingfield committed anyway after speaking with the coaching staff.
“The coaches had a lot to do with it,” Sappinfield said of her decision to come to Ann Arbor. “To me, they’re the best coaching staff in the country.”
Hutchins is known for the stern personality that she hides behind steely blue eyes, but that fire seems to inspire her teams to perform better. Training tireless hours at the Oosterbaan Fieldhouse during the colder months and traveling thousands of miles each weekend to warmer states for non-conference series, Hutchins puts pressure on her players to perform and rarely breaks her icy glare. But her relationship with her teams is one of hard-earned respect and commitment to the sport, one that often lasts beyond the college years.
Schoenly is one of four former Wolverines coaching in the 12-team Big Ten (two head coaches and two assistants), and Hutchins hopes more come from her current roster. Halfway through the season, her team has jelled, winning 13 consecutive games and holding sole possession of first place in the Big Ten. They have grown close over their shared love for softball, and that gives Hutchins a reason to smile.
During their game against the Broncos, junior first baseman Caitlin Blanchard smacked a line drive that whistled straight towards Hutchins near the third-base bag. Backpedaling deftly, the coach barely stepped out of the way in time, and both Blanchard and Hutchins burst out laughing.
“We’re a really close-knit group,” Hutchins said. “You go through the war every year with these kids.”
Hutchins relies on traditions to make it through that war alive. Before games, as the opponent is introduced by the public-address announcer, each player leans over near the dugout and etches a picture into the ground. Some draw numbers; others, shapes. Hutchins rewards a Michigan batter who hits a home run by tossing her a peanut M&M as she rounds third base. These are customs that span back as far as the players can remember, traditions that Hutchins says help loosen the players during tense situations.
This is the softball program that Hutchins has created. A head coach for 29 seasons and an assistant for two more, Carol Hutchins is Michigan softball.
“This has been my life, and it’s made me so happy,” she said.
She starred at Michigan State, so her picture will never be on the All-American wall of the Donald R. Shepherd Softball Building. But most of those faces came to Michigan because of Hutchins, and every single one of them is a member of the Michigan softball family— even though some ended up at rival schools.