Avi Sholkoff: The championship season that wasn't

Sunday, June 5, 2016 - 6:22pm

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — The 2016 season was supposed to be the year the No. 2 Michigan softball team would win its second Women’s College World Series championship. It returned nearly every player from 2015 runner-up squad, losing just left-hander Haylie Wagner and catcher Lauren Sweet from their core lineup. 

Record-setting seniors Sierra Romero and Sierra Lawrence led the top of the lineup with potent power and blistering speed. Lawrence had a career-setting season with new highs in batting average, on-base-percentage and slugging percentage.

Meanwhile, Romero dominated conference play, too. She earned Big Ten Player of the Year and her first-ever USA Softball Player of the Year award in her third consecutive time as a top-three finalist. Romero was named as a NFCA All-America first-team member for the third straight year.

Senior right fielder Kelsey Susalla had another solid year in the cleanup spot, hitting .344 with 11 home runs. Susalla earned her second consecutive spot on the NFCA All-Great Lakes region First-Team.

This was the Wolverines’ season to win it all. They had the player of the year in Romero, the Big Ten coach of the year and NCAA’s most winningest coach in Carol Hutchins, the Big Ten Pitcher of the year in junior right-hander Megan Betsa and four players earning All-American accolades. This was Michigan’s time to shine, until it wasn’t.

The top scoring team in the country, with 8.61 runs per game, crossed the plate just seven times in its three WCWS games — a 2.33 average. Romero, the team leader in batting average, home runs, RBI and nearly every other offensive category went 1-for-7 in the WCWS with the same amount of strikeouts as RBI (one). Lawrence wasn’t much better, hitting two singles in nine at-bats.

Team 39 was a team saddled with expectations. At the team’s Media Day in February, the Wolverines answered questions about a possible postseason rematch with No. 1 Florida. Michigan made it further than the Gators — who were upset in the Super Regionals — but not as far as last season.

There were bright spots in this year’s lineup, giving optimism for next season. Sophomore first baseman Tera Blanco cemented herself as the team’s next dynamic hitter, slugging 12 home runs and 66 RBI while posting a .409/.758/.540 slash line. She will look to build on this year’s success as the likely-cleanup hitter next spring. Junior left fielder Kelly Christner couldn’t match her other-worldly sophomore year numbers, but she still provided a .320 average and tremendous energy both at the plate and on the field as a team captain. And of course, Betsa will return for her senior year. Betsa so often stymied her opponents from the circle, holding them to a career-low .162 batting average and striking out 302 of them. With the exception of Romero, the rest of the infield will return next season, but Christner will be the only outfield starter back.

The 2016 softball season was one with tremendous potential that ultimately fell short. Mistakes defensively behind the plate, a dearth of pitching depth and a lack of timely hitting cost the Wolverines another trip to the WCWS championship.

“My time here has been awesome,” Susalla said after Michigan’s 1-0 loss to Florida State on Sunday. “This last year with 20 other other girls was just amazing. We didn’t get the outcome that we wanted, but I wouldn’t have traded these last three days for anything.”

In the last four years, Michigan has won 210 games. It won the Big Ten in each of those seasons, it reached the finals of the WCWS, but one task still eluded the Wolverines’ senior class: the chance to hold the WCWS trophy.

“It’s really hard to get to the World Series,” Hutchins said. “It’s really hard to win at the World Series. And honestly, I’m just proud of our kids for the season they’ve had. It doesn’t always go your way. That’s how life goes.

“This has been a — this is a tough group. We made them tough by what we do every day, and regardless of the final outcome here, they toughed through all those things. ... We were close to winning it last night without our best performance. This is a really tough group.”

A tough group that had everything — everything but a performance worthy of winning a WCWS championship.