For the senior class, third time's the charm
Normally, if it took the No. 16 Michigan softball team three tries to do any simple task correctly, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins would be irate.
But on Saturday’s Senior Day, after the Ohio State game — resulting in an 8-0 win — she made an exception. The first two pitiful tries had resulted in a muddy field and a dry Hutchins.
But as she and the seniors lined up hand-in-hand to take a picture to memorialize the group’s last regular-season weekend, the remaining players tried their deed a third time — this attempt finding success.
The softball team poured a cooler of Gatorade over Hutchin’s head to celebrate clinching the Big Ten title — the 17th in school history.
“Now I have to get the sugar out of my hair. It took them two or three tries.” Hutchins said. “I told them, ‘Win more championships and you’ll get the practice down.’”
And the ones who couldn’t participate in the ceremonial dumping of the Gatorade were the ones with the most experience doing it — the seniors.
Coming off a mediocre season — a bad one for their standards — the seniors bounced back, looking to reclaim the title they had relinquished the year before. And against their rival, they did just that — earning their third and final title — one that Hutchins states is their most special.
And that was because they could finally claim a title they could call their own.
“You know, they were on the two teams,” Hutchins said. “We had the Romo era, and I think this is theirs.”
No longer were they in the shadows of former first-team All-American Michigan players Sierra Lawrence, Kelly Christner and star Sierra Romero or even second-team All American Megan Betsa. Instead, as the backbones of the team, the seniors proved that this era belonged to them.
Before the season, the expectations were as they always are for a young but talented team. There was potential, but it would take consistency to prove this team had what it would take to be great.
Realizing this, the seniors couldn’t afford a down year — or another one in senior first baseman and right-hander Tera Blanco's case.
After being a first-team All American her sophomore year, batting a .404 average with 12 homes runs, she took a step back her junior year with a .288 batting average. However, in her senior-year campaign, she returned to her former glory, securing a .360 batting average and 10 home runs.
In contrast, despite senior outfielder Aidan Falk seeing a marginal decrease in her numbers, she still was able to produce, often times when it was needed most. And while the other seniors saw limited at-bats or time on the field, they contributed in more ways than just in the game.
“They had to find a way to make this group go,” Hutchins said. “And you know since the beginning of the Big Ten season, we dropped the second game in Iowa, and we’ve just continued to get better. I think we’ve gotten a lot better as a team.”
The team was young. There was no way around it. So in turn, the roles for the seniors expanded. It was no longer possible for them to just be good players and expect the best. It was time for them to be great leaders, great mentors. And they did.
“We’re young, so there’s a ton of potential for people to step up and take an opportunity and just run with it,” said junior second baseman Faith Canfield. “There’s not a target on our back like I think there has been in the past, and I think that’s a good thing, cause we’re just gonna go out there and go for it.”
The first step to building that potential to talent was to build a new culture.
Falk pointed to the culture when talking about what went awry the year prior. What they did wrong was try and force the old culture on the new era — one that didn’t fit them. So in turn, they spent a large portion of the off-season re-establishing what was important — the pillars of Michigan softball.
“There’s four [pillars], and I think the biggest for us are just confidence, discipline, accountability and, I think, it’s courage,” Falk said. “And so, I mean they’re all just attributes that you want to have as a teammate, like that’s what you want to see in your teammate. If we don’t see that in our teammates, we make sure that we hold them accountable, to have those virtues kind of grow out of them.”
Blanco also grew into a mentorship role as well, serving as not just a teacher but as a student to freshman left-hander Meghan Beaubien — the breakout star of the season. It was never cut-throat like it was on paper. The two were just trying to get better, and they did so side-by-side.
“I think it’s a really good relationship because like she said, (Blanco and I are) both really competitive, so we both push each other to get better,” Beaubien said. “But also I know that if I’m struggling with something, or I need some advice, like Tera’s always there, and she’s had the experience, and she’s able to be a leader for me.”
But for the seniors, the season didn’t go by easily. They suffered losses early in the season that were stains on a defining year for them. But through the lows, they learned, grew and rebounded for the sake of the very thing they accomplished on Saturday. They wanted the Big Ten Championship.
“They’ve all taken their shares of ups and downs,” Hutchins said. “But they’re together as a class and they’ve stayed focus. They were focused on this championship, and I’m happy for them more than any senior class I can remember. I’m really happy for them.”
Sure, they had two titles to their names before the season. But for this senior class, this was their era. They built the framework, the culture, the chemistry. So when it comes to another Big Ten title, the third time’s a charm.