Marx of change


Published April 17, 2006

On June 7, 2005, the winds of change were blowing through Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, Okla. The Michigan softball team was vying not just for its own first national championship, but also the first for any team east of the Mississippi River. Standing in the way was 10-time national champion UCLA.

Down by one game in the three-game series, Michigan had yet to score a run against the Bruins. But in the fifth inning of game two, No. 8 batter Becky Marx stepped up to the plate. Things were about to change - not only for the team, but for Marx herself. And for the St. Joseph native, change was nothing new.

Young Talent

She was supposed to play soccer. Or dance ballet. Anything but softball.

"I was supposed to be the soccer kid," Marx said. "Mom thought softball was too dangerous."

But Marx's soccer coach had a softball team, too. And when one of his players broke her arm, the team found itself one player short of eligibility for competition. The coach suggested the 9-year-old Marx try out.

The tryout was simple: if Marx hit the ball, she was on the team. And much to her mother's dismay, Marx made contact.

"I was afraid she'd get hit in the head with the ball and get hurt," Marx's mother, Debra, said. "I really wasn't thrilled with it. Then, it became the love of her life."

The change of sports suited Marx well. She showed talent from the beginning, moving from recreational leagues to travel teams at age 12. At first, that meant hour-long commutes to practice in Kalamazoo every week. As traveling softball grew more popular, a local team started up, allowing Marx to play closer to home.

On the more competitive teenage teams, Marx stood out.

"It was pretty apparent early on that she was quite a gifted athlete," said Ron Harrah, who coached Marx when she was 13. "She was definitely head and shoulders above anybody else in her position at that age."

Harrah, who describes Marx as "extremely coachable," played her in any position he could, except for pitcher. She moved around the field without complaint, but it was obvious that Marx's favorite spot was behind the plate, where she could control the game.

Ever since she was little, she liked to be in control. Debra Marx recalls her 3-year-old daughter bossing her parents around the house, telling them where they could and couldn't sit.

"She's a born leader," Debra said. "She likes to be calling shots."

As a catcher, Marx could do just that.

"The catcher is the base," Marx said. "I think if the catching position is solid, then everything else can kind of flow from that."

Marx's desire to be a leader translated into big roles off the field as well. She served as drum major of a 243-member marching band and president of the National Honor Society at Stevensville-Lakeshore High School.

Lakeshore had the reputation of being a softball powerhouse, with a trophy case full of state championships to back it up. During Marx's four years, the team nabbed three district championships but fell short of adding another state crown.

Marx, who batted .418 as a high school senior, was selected to the all-state team twice. Naturally, being in the state's softball spotlight garnered some attention from college recruiters.

Michigan coach Carol Hutchins, who had seen Marx at Michigan's summer camps, was among those recruiters. But Marx's heart was set on something else.

Big City, Small Team

Looking at colleges, Marx had a few choices. The one that instantly grabbed her attention was Loyola, a small Jesuit university in Chicago. A campus visit confirmed her interest, especially when she met the softball team.

"I instantly fell in love with the girls," Marx said. "I love Chicago. I'm a huge Cubs fan. It was perfect."

On top of that, Loyola offered Marx a complete scholarship. Back in Ann Arbor, the only offer on the table was the chance to be a utility player on a roster that already had standout catcher Monica Schock.

"I was just going to be a number," Marx said of Michigan.

With under 15,000 students, Loyola guaranteed Marx more than just immediate playing time. Small classes and personal attention from professors were also luring qualities. At Loyola, Marx enrolled in a math class where she was the lone student.

She also felt the effects of being at a small university on the softball field. Her freshman year, the team had just 12 players. With injuries and a player suspended, that number continued to dwindle.

"We were down to nine, and then our other pitcher got injured," Marx said. "We actually had to call a game. They said it was because of weather, but really we just didn't have enough players to play."

As a freshman, Marx saw limited action behind the plate, playing most of the games as the designated player. Being unable to contribute defensively frustrated Marx, who loved being involved in the game as much as possible.

On the offensive end, Marx made her presence known. She led the team with 28 RBI and shared the lead for home runs (7).

Her sophomore year brought more time behind the plate and more offensive domination. She set a school record with 44 RBI and notched seven home runs, again with a .326 average.

But with Marx's individual success came disappointments for the depleted team. Toward the end of the season, two assistant coaches were fired, and the starting pitcher transferred schools.

"Everything was falling apart," Marx said. "I still loved the girls, that was always there. I loved the university. I loved the location. But this was not what I dreamt of my career. I didn't want to end my career there. I wanted to push myself and do bigger and better things."

The summer before heading to Loyola, Marx had played for a travel team called the Michigan Oilers. Among her teammates were future Wolverines Stephanie Bercaw, Michelle Tessler and Jennie Ritter.

Marx noticed a special connection between her catching and Ritter's pitching. Ritter insisted that Marx join her in Ann Arbor, but by then, Marx had already committed to Loyola.

"Had I met her before that summer, I completely would have come here," Marx said. "I would have followed her."

After Marx's sophomore season, she came to Alumni Field during the NCAA Regional Championships to see how Ritter was faring as a Wolverine. With the Loyola softball program in shambles, Ritter again urged her friend to come play for Michigan.

At first, Marx laughed off the idea of a transfer. But once she got home from Alumni Field, Ritter's words crept back in her head. Marx began to look into the transfer process, only to be greeted by restrictions.

Since she was still on Loyola's roster, Marx could contact Hutchins just once over the phone about playing for Michigan. If she were to transfer, she had to do everything else on her own.

"I had to go off of faith that if I left, I could come here and play," Marx said.

The transfer would not only rid her of guaranteed playing time, but Marx would also forfeit her scholarship money.

Luckily, Loyola understood and willingly helped Marx. After being granted the ability to talk to other schools, Marx could dive into the process even further. And if the transfer didn't work out, Loyola assured her that it would always have a spot for her on the roster.

"They knew everything was changing," Marx said.

Once she was admitted to Michigan and released from Loyola, Marx could finally talk with Hutchins.

"I told her we'd be happy to take her," Hutchins said. And with that, Marx went from being a Rambler to a Wolverine.

Junior Orientation

Marx arrived in Ann Arbor that fall, just in time for a team picnic. Some of her new teammates were familiar faces from travel teams and summer leagues, but other players didn't even know why Marx was there.

"They were like 'So, who's that girl?'" Marx said. "They didn't know a catcher was coming in because everything happened within two weeks of school starting."

While adjusting to bigger classes and meeting new teammates, Marx also had to adapt to new coaches and new styles.

Hutchins often tells her players that the first two years at Michigan are spent learning to play Michigan softball, and the last two years are spent actually playing it. Coming in as a junior, Marx had to cram that philosophy into half the time.

"I came in, and I swung completely different from what they wanted at Michigan," Marx said. "All year was me trying to learn a new swing."

Once the offensive star of her team, Marx had to settle for the bottom of the lineup. It seemed like the more Marx tried to improve her hitting, the more frustrating the situation grew.

"This is terrible, but halfway through the year I just said, 'OK, my batting is not that great. I'm just going to focus on defense,' " Marx said. "I was just going to try to survive out there batting. I tried to get better every day, but it just wasn't happening."

Marx's defensive focus showed. Jumping right into the catcher position that was vacated after Schock's graduation. Marx became a fixture in the starting nine. She held strong behind the plate and committed just three errors the entire season while continuing to click with Ritter.

On offense, her .233 season average was a .093 drop from her previous season at Loyola. Compared to her 63 hits for the Ramblers her sophomore year, she managed just 35 as a Wolverine. Her 26 RBI at Michigan paled in comparison to her 44 at Loyola, and her 10 runs represented a significant drop-off from 29 the previous season.

Things were different for Marx. The pressure to win at Michigan pounded down much heavier than it did at Loyola. In addition, Marx's teammates were having the season of their lives. With multiple players enjoying career seasons, a record-breaking 32-game win streak and the top ranking in the country, the Wolverines were on fire. That fire continued on into the postseason, and eventually brought Michigan to the grand stage of college softball.

Stepping Up

There Marx was. Her entire team, school and state were all crossing their fingers. If Michigan couldn't get on the board against the Bruins, they'd be packing for Ann Arbor.

And then, much to everyone's surprise, it happened.

"I took a nice easy cut, and it went over," Marx said. "I couldn't believe it. I didn't understand what was going on."

Marx's slam over the leftfield fence brought in two runs for the Wolverines, leveling the score at 2-2. The offensive drought was over and the next night, Michigan was crowned a national champion.

"She gave the whole team life," Hutchins said. "From that time on for the rest of the series, we were energized. She gave us that."

Before the game, Marx and leftfielder Rebekah Milian had talked about their importance at the bottom of the batting order.

"You expect Tiffany Haas to get a hit every day, but not the bottom of the order," Marx said. "In order to win championships, the bottom of the order has to show up. The top's there day-in and day-out. The bottom will actually put you over the edge."

Milian and Marx continued to embrace their roles through the offseason. Sporting national championship rings on their right hands, the duo went to work with extra hitting practice and extra weight lifting.

Hutchins recalls walking into the Oosterbaan indoor practice facilities in the fall and seeing Marx and Milian hard at work. The two set a goal of going five times a week, but going beyond that was an aspiration too. One week, they hit all seven days.

"We tried to go every day we could," Milian said. "We just kept each other on task. One of us wouldn't want to go hit, but the other would be like 'Come on, we're going to go hit.' We kept each other balanced and motivated. We would be like 'Come on, this is for the home run,' to get that final rep in. We pushed each other to get better."

With offensive powerhouses Jessica Merchant and Nicole Motycka graduating, there were spaces to fill. Hutchins posed a challenge to the team to step up and fill that void.

Marx took the challenge to heart.

"She has never worked so hard in weight training, and taking extra batting practice," Debra Marx said of her daughter. "She knew she wanted to be one of them that was going to step up and try and fill the gap."

The true test came on Feb. 17 this year in the season opener against DePaul. Would the clutch home run from the WCWS truly be a turning point for Marx's offense? Would the work she put in all year pay off? Could the team succeed without Merchant and Motycka?

Marx silenced the questions in the third inning. By hitting Michigan's first home run of the season, she showed she was capable of leading the Wolverine offense.

Now 37 games into the season, Marx leads the team in home runs with 10. Her career season has been a testament to the hard work of those fall days. With a team-high 35 RBI and a .327 average, Marx's offensive woes of last season are a distant memory.

"She knows this is her final year," Milian said. "She talked all fall about how this was her last year, how she's not leaving anything. She's not going to have any regrets. She's going all-out, no fear. I think that's really helped her."

Defining a career in two years seems impossible, but Marx has done it. Responding to change with confidence and grace, she will leave a distinctive impression on the Michigan softball program - in half the time most players get.