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Softball to meet No. 5 Kentucky at FAU Kickoff

Patrick Barron/Daily
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By Justin Meyer , Daily Sports Writer
Published February 20, 2014

The beginning of the season for any talented and highly ranked team will have unforeseen challenges and missteps.

For the No. 7 Michigan softball team, though, the first third of the season is a frenzied blitz.

Six tournaments in six weekends, thousands of miles of travel and top competition await the Wolverines each preseason. The team heads into the halfway point of the grueling stretch this weekend as it travels to Boca Raton, Fla. to face Kent State, Pittsburgh, Florida Atlantic and No. 5 Kentucky at the Florida Atlantic Kickoff.

“Only the tough go to Michigan,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “Everybody else goes somewhere warm.”

The travel burden hasn’t fazed Michigan (7-2) thus far. Instead, the Wolverines have beaten a pair of ranked teams and scored 65 runs in their first nine games.

“Being locked in Oosterbaan for practice,” said senior centerfielder Lyndsay Doyle, “it’s always exciting to get on dirt and big blue skies and just play ball.”

Doyle, the leadoff hitter for Michigan, is currently in one of the best hitting stretches of her career with a .444 batting average, 16 hits and a nine-game hitting streak. The first four hitters in the batting order have also performed well thus far and have provided a remarkable stability by starting every game of the season.

Hutchins has continued to rotate the lower half of the batting order, particularly in response to the Wolverines’ tendency to strand runners on base. Outside of the top four hitters, the team is just 3-for-28 on the season with runners in scoring position.

Against Kentucky, Michigan will face top-five competition for the second time this season, but will be looking for a much different result. On opening weekend, a late-inning collapse against current No. 1 Florida cost the Wolverines a game they seemed to be in control of.

The Wildcats (10-0) are off to the best start in program history and feature a dangerous hitter in Griffin Joiner. The catcher is batting .556 on the season and owns a 1.296 slugging percentage to go along with six home runs.

Michigan also has power at the plate, though, with sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero hitting .536, two grand slams and 17 RBI despite being intentionally walked frequently.

Romero was given co-Big Ten Player of the Week honors after a strong performance last weekend, and freshman pitcher Megan Betsa received Freshman of the Week recognition.

“It’s hard coming in as a freshman,” Doyle said. “They’ve all done really well, and that’s what we need. It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman or a senior, if you’re playing on the field, we need you to do your part.”

The pitching staff has also been the subject of Hutchins’ continual toying this season. Junior Haylie Wagner, junior Sara Driesenga and Betsa give the Wolverines a fearsome rotation with experience and talent, but Hutchins has not been satisfied yet with the results.

Instead, Hutchins said that Driesenga needs to stay ahead in the count and that Betsa is still giving up too many free bases.

The rotation has been unpredictable thus far, with a few complete games registered and the rest splitting time. Michigan will need all three pitchers in top form this weekend if it hopes to complete its first undefeated tournament of the season.

The offense has come in bunches, but the Wolverines have yet to string together the kind of tournament they are looking for with the depth and experience of this team. Facing a middling field and one strong opponent in Kentucky, Michigan won’t be happy returning after anything less than an undefeated weekend.