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Thursday, December 18, 2014

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Despite slow start, softball mercies Michigan State

By Kelly Hall, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 11, 2014

Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins never places any expectations on the opposing team, always keeping her lone focus on what her players bring to the plate. Still, there was an expectation that the Wolverines wouldn’t falter against Michigan State on Friday.

Though the Spartans (2-10 Big Ten, 9-26 overall) put up an unlikely fight early, Michigan defeated its rivals with a 9-1 mercy-rule victory in five innings.

The day began with the dedication of the Donald R. Shepherd Softball Center, but the brand-new building can’t be held accountable for the success of the Wolverines (10-0, 31-6). Junior left-hander Haylie Wagner is now 19-0 this season, and junior shortstop Sierra Romero still managed three runs against Michigan State even though the Spartans walked her all but one time — and those are only two of the players in the Wolverines’ stacked lineup.

Michigan started the game with energy, scoring three runs in the first inning. The next two were left dry, however, while Michigan State gained momentum.

Spartan Kassidy Kujawa hit a solo moonshot in the second inning to score her team’s lone run, but that was the most trouble the Wolverines would face all night.

“(Hutchins) told me to relax and do my part out there and to focus on the little things,” Wagner said. “It’s one-pitch softball, and I just needed to do what I could to help Michigan win.”

With the game being closer than expected in the bottom of fourth, the Wolverines needed someone to step up. That help came in the form of sophomore left fielder Sierra Lawrence, who hit a long double to bring home senior right fielder Nicole Sappingfield.

Senior first baseman Caitlin Blanchard followed up with a bloop single to send Romero home, breaking a slump at the plate that has plagued her throughout conference play.

The next inning, Wagner was hit by a pitch for the second time Friday night, that time in her throwing arm. She nursed the bruise on her walk to first base, but the injury only energized Wagner more.

“It definitely fires up everybody when anybody on the team gets hit,” Wagner said. “I think that’s what happened — everybody was just ready to go and wanted to fight back.”

She recovered quickly, striking out the side in the top of the fifth.

Blanchard came in clutch again in the bottom of the fifth, ending the game with a single that scored Romero.

“It was great (to get the win),” Blanchard said. “There were a bit of nerves before the game, there was a big crowd and a big hullabaloo. Once we started to play the game, though, it was just a game.”

The Wolverines are now the only undefeated team in the Big Ten, and Friday extended their winning streak to 17. Michigan will travel to East Lansing for the rest of the weekend to finish its three-game series against the Spartans.