Jacob Kopnick: Laying the foundation

Wednesday, May 30, 2018 - 8:17pm

Freshman slugger Jesse Franklin helped lay a strong foundation for the Michigan baseball team this season

Freshman slugger Jesse Franklin helped lay a strong foundation for the Michigan baseball team this season Buy this photo
Cameron Hunt/Daily

To put it bluntly, the bookends of the Michigan baseball team’s season were a disaster.

The Wolverines started their season 4-11, a mark they won’t soon forget, and ended it 2-7. However, in the middle portion, Michigan found itself successful in amassing a 20-game win streak.

In a rebuilding season, the Wolverines faced almost everything you can experience in baseball. From heartbreaking defeats to walk-off wins, Michigan and its young core was there through it all and gained a crucial element that can’t be found in any statbook: experience.

Heading into the season, the hope was that the Wolverines could fill the vacancies left by their 15 departing juniors and seniors with fresh, young talent and avoid the pangs of rebuilding. After a long recruiting season, Michigan was poised to do just that. It acquired the 10th-ranked recruiting class in the nation, good for the best batch of incoming freshman in the history of the Big Ten. But to whom much is given, much is expected.

And after a long road trip to begin the season posited the Wolverines at 4-11, a large cloud of disappointment loomed large over Ray Fisher Stadium.

“We’d like to think that coming into this season that we’ve put ourselves into a position to reload and not rebuild, but clearly we’re rebuilding right now,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich after a series loss to Lipscomb. “We’ll see how we progress from here, but so far this has been nothing but disappointment.”

Then, it was as if someone flipped a switch. The Wolverines began winning at an unparalleled rate, and the freshmen adapted to college ball. The young guys began showing what they were capable of: cementing their legacy at Michigan.

Frequently contributing to the Wolverines’ game on a daily basis were slugger Jesse Franklin, left-hander Ben Dragani, left fielder Jordan Nwogu, shortstop Jack Blomgren and right-hander Jeff Criswell.

Franklin led the team with 10 home runs, and Dragani worked his way into the weekend starting rotation highlighted by a 2.76 ERA and a 6-2 record—all impressive stats for any college baseball player, let alone one in his first season.

Supporting and mentoring the freshmen throughout their inaugural season were the juniors and seniors in the the Wolverine dugout.

“The future is really bright,” said junior center fielder Jonathan Engelmann. “As you can tell, we had a lot of younger guys contributing on a day-to-day basis, and it’s inspiring to the older guys too. This is a team where it’s good to be in a mentorship role, but I feel like I learn as much from them as I’ve taught them.”

Added Bakich: “What I’ll take away (from this team) is that the older guys, the guys that have evolved into leadership roles, like (senior catcher Brock Keener) and Engelmann and others, they just didn’t let the team go in the wrong direction when so many teams could’ve just said, ‘This is a rebuilding year and it’s a bad year.’ And we were clearly heading in that direction.”

Seeing that resolve in the older guys will be monumental going forward. It’s one thing to merely develop your physical tools as an athlete, but completely something else to experience true team cohesion and mental toughness. In a sport where failure is abundant, the strength of one’s character is determined by their ability to overcome rather than their success in the scorebook. If this season is any indication, the freshmen’s character is as strong as its ranking suggests.

Besides grit and resilience, the freshmen have also learned, and will continue to learn, the importance of representing the block-M well. Michigan and championships are synonymous, so the more a player wears a maize and blue jersey, the more they understand the weight it carries.

“I hope more than anything that they understand the significance of playing for Michigan,” Engelmann said. “That above all is the most important thing. Wearing the block-M over your jersey, that’s the main thing that I think is the most important, and I hope that’s the most important thing they’ve learned this year.”

Looking back, the Wolverine faithful will debate whether this season was a failure or success. In many ways it was both, but regardless of how you feel, one thing is certain: a strong foundation has been laid for the future.