‘We were going to win a national championship. That’s what we were gonna do’: An oral history of the 2005 Michigan softball championship

Monday, June 8, 2020 - 10:29pm

The 2005 Michigan softball team celebrated after beating UCLA in the final game of the Women's College World Series.

The 2005 Michigan softball team celebrated after beating UCLA in the final game of the Women's College World Series. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Michigan Athletics

The Michigan softball team was tired of simply making it. 

Entering 2005, the program had been to the Women’s College World Series seven times in the last 10 seasons, yet never finished above fifth place. In a West Coast-dominated sport, the Midwestern Wolverines were viewed as a respected competitor, not a viable threat to win the championship.

From the very beginning, the 2005 team set out to change that perception. Undeterred by the burden of a No. 1 ranking, slight from the national media and bouts with the brink of elimination, the Wolverines proved they were more than competitors. They were champions. 

“It was Michigan softball’s moment,” Jessica Merchant, a 2005 senior shortstop and team captain, said. “And it was just an exciting moment for Michigan softball to be able to finally get to the top.”

Fifteen years later, the team’s remarkable victory continues to be felt in the confines of Alumni Field and across the softball landscape. The Daily spoke with players and coaches to reminisce on the legendary season. 

Michigan began the 2005 season ranked eighth nationally, pairing an auspicious freshman class with a core nucleus of players returning from a 2004 trip to the Women’s College World Series. Early on, it was apparent that last year’s letdown in Oklahoma City hung over the team — the Wolverines fell to LSU, 3-2, in 13 innings and then to Stanford, 5-4, to close their season.

Merchant: Every year we had a goal setting activity. We talked about what goals we’re gonna set for ourselves as a team throughout the year.

Stephanie Bercaw, Michigan outfielder, 2003-2006: Every year, it was always “Let’s make it to the World Series.” For that year, that came up again, and there was a big debate on why we keep saying “Make it” to the World Series.

Tiffany Haas, Michigan second baseman, 2003-2006: (Merchant) stood up and she was loud and said, “I want to win this. This is what I want.” She just made a decision, said it out loud, and from that moment, we all bought in.

Bonnie Tholl, Michigan associate head coach, 1994-2020: Someone in the room needed to say it, and Jessie Merchant had enough courage to say it.

Jennie Ritter, Michigan pitcher, 2003-2006: When it was finally said, (Michigan coach Carol Hutchins) was just like, “Okay, let’s do it.” It was so matter of fact. If that’s what we’re gonna do then let’s do it. It was more of a mission than a lofty goal.

It didn’t take long for Michigan to hit its first bump in the road — a season-opening 7-6 loss to No. 17 Baylor. 

Ritter: We lost that first game, it was like what the heck are we doing? Then we went on the win streak.

Rebekah Milian, Michigan outfielder, 2004-2007: We just kept knocking teams off. And we just sort of knew. We lost our first game and after that, we just never lost.

The 2005 NCAA championship trophy being hoisted.

The 2005 NCAA championship trophy being hoisted. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Michigan Athletics

Michigan rode a 21-game win streak into the opening game of the Judi Garman Classic in Fullerton, California (March 17 - March 20). Ranked fifth in the country, the Wolverines had already toppled eight ranked opponents on the season, yet matchups with No. 11 Texas and No. 1 Arizona loomed. 

Tholl: The Judi Garman tournament was typically a mini Women’s College World Series with the caliber of teams that were entered in that tournament year in and year out.

Grace Leutele, Michigan third baseman, 2003-2006: You either survive or die that weekend in my opinion — you either win them all or lose them all. 

Carol Hutchins, Michigan head coach, 1985-2020: We beat Arizona in the finals.

Leutele: It proved to us that what we already knew to be true was true. That we were capable of beating anybody. 

Nicole Motycka, Michigan designated player, 2002-2005: And it gave us the confidence a national championship team needs to win. A lot of teams are really talented, but I think it takes a certain level of that confidence.

Hutchins: They didn’t care if I believed in them or not. They had an innate swag that, as many good teams as I’ve had, I have never had a team with that kind of internal belief.

Hutchins: So we got back and somebody said you’re probably gonna be ranked number one, and I was like “Oh, greeeeat.” Because you know, I know as well as anyone, I’m trying to get back to the World Series and have a chance to win it, but just to get to it, how hard it is. 

Samantha Findlay, Michigan first baseman, 2005-2008: All I have drilled in my head still is “We’re gonna play one-pitch softball, we’re gonna play one game at a time until we get to the World Series until we win the national championship.”

Merchant: Hutch sent a message loud and clear that nobody cares who’s number one in the middle of the season and that all that matters is who’s number one at the end.

Hutchins: The team wasn’t rattled by it. We just did a really good job. Those kids had been to the World Series and had their heart broken. They knew that this wasn’t over until the end.

Merchant: I think it was a stepping stone for us. Maybe not to ourselves so much, but to the rest of the country that we were here to compete with the best.

Michigan breezed into Big Ten play on a school-record 32-game-winning streak, setting up a  much-anticipated home opener against No. 24 Iowa. The Hawkeyes shocked the Wolverines, 5-2. 

Becky Marx, Michigan catcher, 2005-2006: We just had this expectation that we were going to blow through everyone. That made us regroup a little.

Tholl: It turned out to be the very best thing that could have happened to us because we weren’t afraid of losing anymore.

Motycka: The losses that we experienced kind of humbled us to reset and focus on what was important. Because I think that we knew that we could do it, we just had to maintain composure.

Hutchins: In the entire Big Ten season until the last day we were number two in the Big Ten. Northwestern had a one game lead on us all year. And you know what? Our kids still valued winning the Big Ten season, probably more than I did. 

Merchant: We needed Michigan State to beat Northwestern to give us a shot the next weekend, so a lot of things fell into place.

Hutchins: They only had to beat us once, we had to beat them twice.

Michigan State edged out Northwestern, creating a dramatic final weekend of the Big Ten season between Michigan (13-2 Big Ten) and the Wildcats (15-1 Big Ten). Buoyed by a dominant performance from Ritter, the Wolverines took the first game, 3-0. In the second matchup, Michigan erased a 4-2 deficit with a six-run sixth inning, holding on to a  8-7 win. The Big Ten Championship was theirs. 

Leutele: Anything less than a championship would’ve felt like a disappointment. 

Merchant: I think that’s what you play for. You play for championships.

Marx: You can’t go into the World Series and not be battle tested. You have to learn how to battle, and (Northwestern and Iowa) taught us how to do it. 

No. 1 Michigan swept through its three-game regional slate effortlessly, setting up a super regional matchup against No. 21 Washington, where the teams split the first two games to force a decisive third meeting. After falling behind 2-0 in the first inning, the Wolverines responded emphatically, scoring 11 unanswered runs.

They were headed back to the World Series, their mission far from complete.

Freshman first baseman Samantha Findlay hit the game-winning three-run homerun in the 4-1 win over UCLA.

Freshman first baseman Samantha Findlay hit the game-winning three-run homerun in the 4-1 win over UCLA. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Michigan Athletics

Merchant: Michigan softball in the past, you know, they hadn't shown up in the World Series. They didn’t have great finishes there.

Leutele: They weren’t known for their success at the World Series. They were known to make it.

Hutchins: We were 2-14 in World Series history as a program when we got there.

Merchant: We hadn’t proven ourselves on that stage.

Ritter: They talked about the powerhouses, and we weren’t one of them.

Bercaw: And it was always, can Michigan do it, can Michigan do it? It was never expected, the way that in other years teams are expected to win when they’re ranked number one. It still felt like we were the underdogs.

Ritter: Nobody seemed to care too much about us.

Hutchins: Our kids were mad, and I loved it.

Haas: Hutch said something like, “Well you guys are underdogs. But so what? Go and prove yourselves.”

Milian: But I think we liked being the underdogs. We knew that we weren't expected to win and I think we liked that.

Hutchins: They had a chip on their shoulder and they played it up big time. Cause everywhere we go, everybody’s talking about everybody but us.

Tholl: We used it as our fuel.

Merchant: The rest of the country doesn’t believe in us. We’ll show you what Michigan softball is about.

Findlay rounded the bases after hitting the homerun that secured Michigan's first-ever championship.

Findlay rounded the bases after hitting the homerun that secured Michigan's first-ever championship. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Michigan Athletics

Michigan blanked DePaul, 3-0, and Texas, 4-0, to begin their World Series campaign. Against Tennessee, the Wolverines suffered a crushing 11 inning loss that ended on a 2-run walk-off home run. A second loss to the Volunteers and their season would end the same as it had the past 7 trips. 

Hutchins: And we come back less than twelve hours later. We got off the field at 2 a.m. We had a noon game. I’m like, noon?

Tholl: We had had rain delays in the series that pushed the whole schedule back.

Milian: We barely got any sleep that night.

Ritter: We were all exhausted.

Marx: I remember being pretty crushed. I cried on the way back to the hotel. 

Leutele: We were like there’s no way that can happen again.

Leutele: I just remember the grit in Jenny Ritter’s face. We were all like, “If she’s gonna do that, who can stop her?” I really think we rallied around that belief.

Marx: We just decided the next game that this was going to be our shot, if it was going to be our last game then we were going to give it everything that we can.

Milian: I remember we watched so much film on the other pitcher, Tennessee’s Monica Abbott.

Hutchins: The other big dog.

Tholl: A really intimidating presence on the mound. And we just didn’t have our offense in sync like we did 60 games earlier.

Marx: You don’t go up against Monica Abbott and think you’ve got anything in the bag.

Bercaw: I remember Monica Abbott. … You hear the stats and how good they are. But the thing is, we prepped for all of that.

Ritter: What’s amazing about this team, though, was that when you feel like we’re hitting a dead end and there’s nothing we can do, somebody comes through and that’s how it’s been the entire season. 

Ritter: Bercaw came through.

Marx: Bercaw hits the home run — our first home run of the series — it just gave us life. Oh yeah, this is who we are, we can do this.

Ritter: All of a sudden there’s this adrenaline in our veins.

In the bottom of the fourth inning, Michigan was up 1-0 with two outs and a runner on second. Bercaw sent Abbott’s pitch over the fence for a two-run home run. The blast proved to be game-winning, as the Wolverines won 3-2.

Later that day, Michigan returned to action, battling UCLA — the two-time defending champions — in Game 1 of the World Series final. 

Ritter: We went back to the hotel, the idea was to rest and recover and try to figure out what the heck we were gonna do, because we had never been in the World Series championship before.

Hutchins: UCLA, they had been sitting around for a day watching us, and they got Ritter out early in the game - as soon as we got behind we took her out. She was tired. 

Marx: We had nothing left in the tank. 

Milian: They scored right out of the gate.

Ritter: To me, there was a little bit of a let down, at least on my part, that we made it, to be satisfied that we just made it to the World Series final. That was just a mental lapse in my judgement of feeling like we’ve done enough. 

Milian: And we knew we could beat them, it was just I think the Tennessee games took something out of us. We just needed to get some rest and come back.

Michigan coach Carol Hutchins received a water cooler shower postgame.

Michigan coach Carol Hutchins received a water cooler shower postgame. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Michigan Athletics

Michigan dropped the opening game to UCLA, 5-0. 

Hutchins: Game 2 we rested up and told them, “Just play, don’t worry about it, you’re rested now.” 

Haas: We just kept doing what we’ve been doing. We just wanted to win a game.

Hutchins: We got behind in game 2, 2-0, in the fifth inning. I’m like, “Wow, we’re not gonna score a run in the championship series.” We were the leading hitting team in the country.

Merchant: Even when we were down we didn’t panic, we didn’t give up.

Findlay: When we got down we didn’t get down on each other, we picked each other up.

Merchant: Maybe it was being a little bit naïve, a little bit young, and a little bit too cocky, but no matter who we were facing or what the situation was, we thought we were going to win.

The Wolverines were staring elimination in its face. With one out and a runner on first, Marx stood in the batters’ box.

Hutchins: And Becky Marx hit her famous homer to tie it up.

Marx: When I hit it I didn’t even know it went over. When Bonnie told me at first it was over the fence …  I knew we were back in the game. 

Bolstered by a Merchant two-run double in the same inning, Michigan went on to win Game 2, 5-2, setting up a winner-take-all game the next night. 

UCLA struck first with a solo home run from first baseman Lisa Dodd. In the sixth inning, the Wolverines finally broke through when Findlay knocked an RBI single into right field. The two teams remained deadlocked into the bottom of the ninth, when the Bruins threatened to take the championship. Designated player Kristen Dedmon blooped a double and advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt, putting the winning run at third with just one out. Ritter, the ace, stood in the circle.

Ritter: UCLA, all they have to do is score that run. So I guarantee, they were feeling pretty dang good.

Tholl: I only allowed myself to do this for about 10-15 seconds, but I remember looking out into right field …  and I was like “Wow, we were so close. We came so close.”

Ritter: (Hutch) tells me to walk the next two batters. …  I hated it. I still hate it, to this day.

Marx: It was not one of those moments that I needed to calm her down. I just needed to let her go.

Ritter: This is a moment where we are 60 feet away from losing the World Series and we want to win so badly, so I just said, “OK, I’m going to do this.’

Milian: It was just that mental switch of “No, we’re going to do this. We’re going to get out of this and get to the next inning.” 

Marx: She just would not let anyone take this away from her. She was gonna be the pitcher that got up there and did it.

With the bases loaded, Ritter induced an inning-ending ground out from UCLA left fielder Ashley Herrera to retire the threat, keeping the season alive. 

Tholl: That’s a huge momentum shift. And it’s more of a momentum shift for the team that just squandered the opportunity.

Ritter: But the game’s still going.

The Wolverines wasted little time threatening in the top of the tenth, as Haas reached on a fielding error and freshman outfielder Alessandra Giampaolo recorded an infield single. The stage was set for Findlay, who strode to the dish with the go-ahead run in scoring position and two outs. 

Ritter: The fact that they pitched to Sam Findlay is still baffling to me.

Bercaw: Anytime that Sam would go up, you’d just kinda wait for the big hit to happen.

Leutele: We all believed in Sam so much in that moment. She’s gonna do this.

Motycka: Do you think it’s going to be a home run and something so glorious? No, but you knew she would make something happen.

Findlay: I liked pressure. … I knew I wanted to be in that position and I was confident.

Haas: I just kept on trying to make eye contact with her, to give her my energy.

Ritter: The whole team is up at the railing, I’m in the back corner literally focusing on nothing, just hoping somebody gets a hit.

Findlay: I saw a good pitch and I took a good swing and as soon as I hit it, you just kinda knew.

Ritter: All of a sudden I hear the crack of the bat, the team screaming, the ball going over the fence and I’m trying to figure out what just happened.

Hutchins: I was just wishing it over the fence. Get out, get out, get out.

Merchant: I was praying that it was going to go out.

Haas: I knew it was a bomb.

Tholl: I knew the moment it came off the bat, it was going out of the park.

Bercaw: It was a laser.

Marx: I just remember being like, “I can’t believe they just pitched to Sam Findlay. Of all the players in the whole country, you just pitched to Sam Findlay?” She just did what she does.

Findlay: The feeling I felt rounding third base heading home to see my teammates and seeing their faces, that’s something I’ll never forget.

Bercaw: It felt like a sealed-deal. … The emotion of that was just indescribable.

Findlay: To see how happy they were, it gave us the confidence to finish the bottom of that inning knowing we would bring Michigan the first softball championship. 

Findlay: It’s a hit that forever changed my life.

Hutchins:  I immediately went into, okay gotta keep them calm. You know, we hadn’t won yet.

Ritter: I remember just talking to myself, this isn’t over yet. You’ve got to go out the same way you did every inning and you’ve got to get three more outs.

Tholl: Jennie Ritter was the bulldog we needed in the circle. Not once in that season had she fallen apart, and I knew she wasn’t going to do that in the brightest moment. 

Tholl: In the biggest moment of the season, she was going to be our rock.

Hutchins: It worked out, it all worked out.

In charge of preserving the three-run cushion, Ritter retired two of the first three batters she faced, the lone baserunner reaching on a fielding error. With Michigan one out away, Dedmon lifted a towering fly ball to the left-side of the infield. 

Ritter: When that pop up came and I saw Merchant catch it, my first reaction … was thank god it’s over. 

Bercaw: I was out in right field, so I was always the last to get in. Everybody else is already celebrating by the time I reach the infield. Just heart-pumping, raw emotions everywhere.

Marx: Everyone was crying.

Bercaw: I just wanted to run in and hug somebody, jump and celebrate together. It was awesome. 

Haas: It’s the best day of our lives. And the celebration, it didn’t end.

Wolverines rushed home plate following Findlay's homerun.

Wolverines rushed home plate following Findlay's homerun. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Michigan Athletics

The 2005 team became the first program located east of the Mississippi River to win the women’s softball College World Series, which began in 1982. It’s the only national title in Michigan softball’s 42-year history. 

Hutchins: A championship, it’s something that no (other) Michigan team has.

Tholl: Michigan winning the national championship gave hope to the rest of the country.

Leutele: I think it changed everything.

Tholl: It legitimized every athlete who played softball outside of the West Coast, and so I think that was our legacy. 

Ritter: It’s no longer a West Coast sport. We’re a cold weather school, up in the north playing on the road and practicing inside for our first 35 games or so, yet we can still compete at that level.

Hutchins: I think it did open up the doors for a lot of people to say we can do this.

Merchant: It gave sixth graders in Michigan hope that they could compete at the highest level, whether it be at the University of Michigan or for any cold weather team.

Ritter: Make kids everywhere believe that this is possible, that they don’t just have to be in the West or in Florida and have a chance to play all the time to win. It’s a big deal for our sport.

Bercaw: I’m from a small town in Ohio. There was a family of kids from my hometown, they drove up to the World Series. … Situations like that, you could just see how it inspired girls. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or where you go, you can reach any level that you set out to reach.

Leutele: I was from Arizona, so as a child who had softball aspiration, I should have wanted to stay in the Pac-10. ... I think other student athletes really realized that, wait a minute, I can go to another university and we can create a culture of that and really believe in it and not be afraid.

Hutchins: There’s no question that people have always noted to me how (the championship) changed the landscape. But we were never out to change the landscape. We were out to put Michigan on the map.

Ritter: This is a team that you find once in a lifetime. You want me to rank the teams that I’ve been on, USA and everything, the chemistry that energy that we had, nothing compares to this team. I don’t think anybody could’ve beaten us that year. 

... I truly in my heart believe that we were unbeatable.