Michigan shows highs and lows of a young team in early-season tournament
Two dominant wins Friday. Two harrowing losses Saturday. A closeout win and a sigh of relief Sunday.
For the softball team, it was déjà vu.
Opening their season in the annual USF Wilson-Demarini Tournament, the Wolverines tallied three wins and two losses over the span of three days. Similar to the year prior, the team put on a first-day show, only to let the next two closely-contested games slip away before bouncing back with a convincing win.
The difference? This year’s team is younger and less experienced but has plenty of room to grow.
On Friday, Michigan posted back-to-back shutouts — 7-0 against Alabama-Birmingham and 8-0 against Georgia State — through the efforts of senior starting right-hander and first baseman Tera Blanco and freshman left-hander Meghan Beaubien.
In an otherwise stressless day, the biggest scare for the Wolverines came at the end of their first game against the Blazers. After Blanco had weathered the storm by keeping UAB scoreless through seven innings, Beaubien came in for her first collegiate appearance to close it, attempting to hold a 7-0 lead.
Throwing her first pitch, Beaubien hit the batter squarely in the chest, awarding the UAB hitter first base. Shortly after, she allowed consecutive infield and right field singles to load the bases.
Facing the pressure of loaded bases and a potential comeback, though, was no scare for the freshman, as she struck out two Blazers before forcing a groundout to second.
“Just one pitch at a time, you know, go after the hitters, trust my defense, don’t think too hard about the runners on base or the next batter coming up,” Beaubien said. “Just one pitch at a time and relax.”
Her mentality gave her the start against Georgia State, where she pitched a six-inning no hitter. Her defense, however, paved the way for her success, allowing her to pitch with little to no pressure.
Up five at the bottom of the fifth, senior utility player Aidan Falk dove to the ground in pursuit of the ball. With a one-handed grab, she came up with the play — one of many crowd-stirring defensive play — to further prevent any chances of an upset from the Panthers.
Despite the shutout, there were mistakes here and there.
But to Michigan coach Carol Hutchins, those mistakes were necessary to show the team that it still had room to improve.
“You know, we saw some great moments from our team,” Hutchins said. “We had some great offense. We had some great pitching. We made some great defensive plays and played some good softball.
“And then I thought we showed some signs that there are some areas to improve and not just at the game of softball. But I told them today, I think our mindset needs to become more consistent, and to have a consistency to our game we’re gonna need to have a consistency to our minds.”
The lack of consistency in its mindset showed after the first day. Before Saturday, the Michigan offense was rolling. Against UAB, Falk had three RBI and two hits. Sophomore shortstop Madison Uden and pitch-hitter Abby Skvarce added an RBI each.
Against the Panthers, the Wolverines recorded 12 hits. Senior utility player Taylor Swearingen recorded two hits, using offense to build confidence in her defense after she committed an error in the field where she allowed the ball to bounce off the top of her glove.
Junior catcher Katie Alexander scored the game deciding run before adding another RBI to round out her performance on Friday.
But the standout of the day, was junior second baseman Faith Canfield who hit two home runs in two games, including a three-run homer over the left field wall against Georgia State. Seeing the ball sail over the fence sent a smile to Canfield’s face as she crossed home plate.
“It felt awesome. I mean, we’ve been practicing inside for the past month,” Canfield said, “so actually getting to see those balls go over the fence and not just hitting the top of our indoor facilities was pretty exciting, felt really good.”
However, that smile disappeared soon after as the team faced No. 2 Florida.
Despite going against a perennial powerhouse in the Gators, Michigan didn’t change its approach as it had the two preceding games. To the players, they were just “going out to play softball like they had always known.”
“It’s Florida,” Beaubien said, “and everyone talks about that because they’re such a good program, but we don’t approach it any differently.”
Just as they had before, the Wolverines came out strong. Canfield led off with contact, which was likely to be a double before it was ruled foul. And in a moment’s notice, Michigan’s offense became stagnant as sophomore outfielder Thais Gonzalez popped out to second base and Falk grounded out to second to cap off the first inning.
Beaubien held Florida to just four hits and two runs, but her effort wasn’t enough as those two runs proved to be all that was needed to win. The Wolverines’ stagnant offense stranded 10 total runners on base against the Gators and South Florida, many of which were in scoring position.
Inning after inning, Michigan produced extra base hits.
But whether they had zero outs or two outs, the Wolverines couldn’t muster a way to convert the opportunities. Faced with its final set of outs in the seventh inning down two, Michigan brought out freshman shortstop Natalia Rodriguez to try to ignite the offense.
Just like her fellow freshman Beaubien, pressure proved to be ineffective, as she hit a single to centerfield. With a runner on first and hope in the dugout, the team rallied around the possibility of tying or winning the game.
“I brought her in the leadoff batter and she got on base against Florida,” Hutchins said. “That was fantastic, high-pressure, that is softball at its highest pressure. I think she’s a confident kid. I think she believes in herself. She’s talented, and she’s got that great body language that comes with it. What we call swag. I like that swag. Shows me that she’s confident in her abilities.”
But just as quickly as the Wolverines’ hopes began, Florida ended them by inducing a groundout by Canfield.
“I thought we had, you know, we had a great game against Florida, and I liked our mindset,” Hutchins said. “I thought we put ourselves in a position to win the game, and we didn’t win the game, but we were in the game to win it.
“And then I did not see that out of them in the South Florida game. We seemed, it was kind of like a letdown type of thing. This morning we came out strong the first inning but then we shot ourselves in the foot almost every inning, just cues that I don’t think we’re locked in enough.”
Coming out of the bus to go into its fourth game in two days, the team’s lack of energy was evident.
That lack of energy made all the difference.
Despite putting up a fight, the Wolverines fell, 3-2, to the Bulls, an unexpected loss just like the year prior. Finding themselves down one late in the game, Hutchins made a tough call to pull Blanco for Beaubien, relying on the left-hander to maintain the slim gap.
However, even though the defense kept the margin to one, the offense struggled again, failing to take advantage of an opportunity in the seventh, as three pinch-hitters hit three straight pop outs or groundouts to end the game.
Bouncing back from a rough loss, the Wolverines proceeded to convincingly beat Illinois State, 6-1, to end their opening tournament run. While the result of the weekend might not have gone the way the team had hoped, there were many takeaways that offered a good look at not just the strengths of the team, but the potential offered by its youth.
“We’re here for one reason, is to be locked into play good softball,” Hutchins said. “So hopefully, you know, it’s a learning curve, and there’s a lot of new kids playing every game.”
“I think you’re never fully as good as you’re going to be,” Canfield said. “So I think all around, we can sharpen up and if anything, just improve our presence, which I think will come with time as we get more comfortable as the season goes on.”