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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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Nine years in the making: Caitlin Blanchard's dream

Ruby Wallau/Daily
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By Jake Lourim, Summer Managing Sports Editor
Published May 28, 2014

Sixty feet.

Besides about 1,000 miles down to Tallahassee, Fla. for the Super Regionals, Caitlin Blanchard’s journey took her around the country for weekend tournaments and on countless drives to Ann Arbor in between. Now, she found herself at third base in the deciding game of the Super Regional, 60 feet away from running home, giving Michigan the lead and continuing her dream.

Blanchard followed the 2005 Michigan softball team, the first team east of the Mississippi River to win the national championship. That dream was years in the making, and since that team got its happy ending, Blanchard has wanted one of her own. The daughter of two Michigan graduates, she grew up in nearby Petersburg, Mich., coming to Michigan softball games all the time and dreaming that it would be her on Alumni Field one day.

But growing up in a town with a population of just over 1,000, those opportunities aren’t easy to find. Though she starred on her high school team and worked her way up to better travel teams as often as she could, she was rarely noticed by big schools.

Not until Blanchard arrived in Ann Arbor did she realize that there were players who were offered full scholarships almost on the spot. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It was definitely difficult to get noticed, but I kind of like the fact that I knew what Michigan softball was all about coming into it,” Blanchard said on April 9. “I have a shirt signed by the 2005 national championship team. Other people, they don’t know who the players on that team were, whereas I kind of idolized them.”

Several Michigan players have said that the program has tested them in ways they’ve never been tested before, that this is the hardest part of their careers. For Blanchard, getting here was no easy task, either.

It took years of hard work, an intense desire and an element of chance. Then, she got the chance to live the dream she had watched play out five years earlier.

* * *

Ironically, Blanchard had to travel across the country to get noticed by coaches who worked at a school 30 miles from her house. She played for a handful of different teams over the years, in front of too many colleges to count, but there was only one she ever wanted to play for.

People sometimes use the term “dream” as a cliché, but for Blanchard, coming to Michigan was just that. When she caught a pitching lesson taught by Jennie Ritter, who led the Wolverines to the national championship with five wins in the Women’s College World Series, she was awestruck. When Michigan coach Carol Hutchins called her the first time to tell her she was interested, Blanchard said she almost passed out.

Eventually, Hutchins offered Blanchard the chance to join the team as a walk-on, but there was one more roadblock to overcome — paying tuition.

Even after she had earned a spot on the team, the dream could have easily died there. But Blanchard’s grandparents answered the bell, agreeing to pay her tuition and allowing her to fulfill her dream.

“When they told me that news,” Blanchard said, “I almost had a heart attack.”

In her first season, making the jump from Michigan Division 1 high-school softball to Big Ten softball, she started 59 games and hit .277. She soon became one of the most consistent players on the team.

After an injury sidelined her most of the 2012 season, she started 62 more games and hit .374 as a junior. On a team stocked with All-Americans who had chosen Michigan over several other top schools, Blanchard had become a regular — a homegrown player who fit right into the lineup.

She regressed to hit .332 this year and never reached the level of the Wolverines’ all-time greats — this year, she hit behind sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero, who batted almost .500 and was a National Player of the Year finalist.

One of the best in program history, she was not. A formidable hitter to protect Romero, she was.

“I’m not a Sierra Romero,” Blanchard said. “There’s not the pressure of, you have to hit 20 home runs this year. I can just go up to the plate and do my own thing for the team, and normally it works out.”

Of her talents, she named her ability to perform any role — catcher, first baseman, pinch-hitter — in any situation. In many cases this year, her job was to punish teams that decided not to pitch to Romero, and more often than not, she came through.

Trailing 1-0 on April 19 against Minnesota, the Wolverines needed some offense, having lost 1-0 the night before. With two on, the Golden Gophers walked Romero to load the bases.

And Blanchard made them pay, lacing a three-run double to the gap.

In the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan let Illinois hang around into the fifth inning. Again, the Fighting Illini walked Romero to load the bases. This time, Blanchard smashed a grand slam to right field, ending all doubt.

“Caitlin is what we call a gamer,” Hutchins said. “Caitlin has been hitting in the middle of the lineup for a long time because she’s clutch. She thrives under pressure. … She doesn’t make more of it than it is. Those kids do well. They stay consistent because they’re not caught up in the surroundings.”

For years, schools around the country overlooked Blanchard, including her dream school. But years after she found Michigan, Michigan finally found her.

* * *

In the end, Blanchard came to Michigan for the same kind of fairytale ending the Wolverines earned in 2005. In her first three seasons, seasons that each included Big Ten championships and NCAA Tournament appearances, that dream eluded her.

So she came back for one more run at it. When the Wolverines started the NCAA Tournament in Tempe, Ariz. against No. 8 seed Arizona State, the dream seemed unlikely. But Michigan won the regional, thanks in part to a go-ahead two-run homer by Blanchard in the first of two elimination games against the Sun Devils.

Michigan loaded the bases with no outs in the seventh inning of a tie game last Friday night. The winner would move onto Oklahoma City for the World Series, and the loser would go home.

Blanchard moved up to third with two outs on a fielder’s choice. There she stood, one quick swing away from sprinting home and putting the Wolverines in the lead.

But she was stranded there, and then things went downhill: In the bottom half, Florida State hit a walk-off two-run home run to end Blanchard’s career.

Blanchard was playing first base during that shot, and she watched it clear the left-field fence easily. She walked toward the dugout after the game and stood there, speechless. Was it really over? Nine years, nine NCAA Tournaments and seven Big Ten championships after she watched Hutchins’ team win the national championship, would she really never put on a Michigan uniform again?

When the 2005 team won the national title, it sparked an invincible dream inside Blanchard.

She never got the fairytale ending she always sought. But then again, maybe she was living it all along.


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