Thorough recruitment defines Michigan's strategy
When it’s 8 a.m. and freezing cold, there’s one person Donny Dreher can count on to be in the stands of a weekend tournament: Michigan coach Carol Hutchins.
Some college coaches don’t come out until 11:00 or noon, but when Hutchins is recruiting a player, she’s there for the first game. She wants all the information she can get.
Dreher is a coach for Michigan Finesse — the top club team in the state — and knows how thorough Hutchins and the rest of her coaching staff like to be. “Thorough” is a word that’s thrown around a lot in reference to the Wolverines’ recruiting practices. They’re thorough in their search for prospective players, thorough in watching them develop throughout high school and thorough in making offers to the ones they really want.
Usually, the process starts in the middle of June when the coaching staff — Hutchins, associate coach Bonnie Tholl and assistant coach Jen Brundage — start traveling to massive, national tournaments to see the best players from across the country. There’s tedious online research of rankings and statistics. From there, club coaches try to identify the future Michigan players on their teams and point them to the Wolverines.
Everyone has a different idea of the stereotypical Michigan recruit: big, strong players that can hit home runs; strong pitchers and defenders; athletic shortstops; a kid that can handle tough love.
In Tholl’s perfect world, though, eight out of every 10 recruits would be a shortstop — the position she played for the Wolverines. They’re typically the most athletic on the team and can be easily moved around the field. According to Chez Sievers, a senior editor at FloSoftball, that’s common for the top collegiate programs.
“They’re a five-tool athlete that can play multiple positions,” Sievers said. “They’ve got some speed. They’ve got power. They’ve got some versatility. They can also hit for average. For the top teams, they try to collect as many of those players as possible.”
At the same time, the Wolverines have to look at the team’s needs on a larger scale. Some years they’ll decide they need more speed. Others they’ll realize they lack power at the plate. The coaches keep a board in their office that lays it all out: what the team has and what positions it needs.
After the team identifies what it’s looking for, the coaches start visiting the club facilities and contacting the players and their families, starting in the state of Michigan.
The strategy makes the logistics easier for the Wolverines — they have stronger relationships with the clubs and can easily see players in person. Seven of the 20 players currently on the roster are in-state.
Bill Conroy, the head coach of the Beverly Bandits, has sent nine players through Michigan’s program. Between all three Wolverine coaches, they’ll come down to watch a player on his team an average of 12 times a year.
“They do their due diligence more than most schools,” Conroy said. “Michigan wants to make sure they’ve got the right kid.”
Sometimes, Tholl will meet kids that just seem destined to be Wolverines, like sophomore catcher Hannah Carson.
Carson is from Weidman and played club softball for Michigan Finesse. Tholl and the rest of the coaching staff watched her progress through high school, seeing her at tournaments and softball camps in Ann Arbor. When Carson started the recruiting process, she was sought out by several colleges, including other top programs like Florida State. In the end, though, she didn’t even visit. Tholl was right — she was meant to be a Wolverine.
“I’ve always wanted to play here,” Carson said. “I grew up coming to the games, coming to all the camps and I really looked up to a lot of the players that played here before me. I would say in middle school, I started to get recruited by Michigan and then my freshman year is when I decided to commit, and it was the best feeling in the world.”
Carson committed in 2015, before NCAA regulations were put in place to stop early recruiting. Now, coaches can’t have direct contact with players until Sept. 1 of their junior year. Before the new regulations, teams felt like they had to make offers earlier and earlier to secure the players they wanted, and kids felt pressure to commit early or risk missing out.
But as recruiting occurred earlier and earlier, Michigan held its ground.
“I would say Michigan in particular has really embraced the thorough process of evaluating their players,” Sievers said. “They didn’t really cave into the early recruiting. They waited, they wanted to see which kids really wanted to become Wolverines and would really fit their program.”
To some extent, Hutchins had to participate in the system. Several current players — including Carson — were recruited in ninth grade. But Hutchins was outspoken against the early recruiting practice and missed out on some top players.
“We were able to make verbal offers to your firstborn that was six months old,” Hutchins said.
She believes that when players were recruited in ninth grade, they lost the incentive to keep improving.
“It’s not because they don’t care,” Hutchins said. “Because they don’t know better. It doesn’t matter who’s the best in ninth grade. It matters who’s the best in college.”
Even though Carson was part of the early recruiting wave, she’s sure she made the right decision. But not everyone’s path is so linear.
Sometimes, there are surprises along the way. Tholl didn’t first hear about sophomore right-hander Alex Storako on a rankings website or at a national tournament. It was in a text from her brother.
You should take a look at this pitcher — she’s really good.
At the time, Storako was playing on a high school team in central Illinois with Tholl’s niece. She’d already been recruited to play at DePaul, but Tholl still took an interest, following her and keeping tabs when her name showed up in The Chicago Sun-Times or the Chicago Tribune. Her name kept coming up, and it was fun to track her progress.
One day, Tholl was running a camp in Peoria, Ill. when she got another text — this time from an unknown number.
Alex Storako, class of ’18 pitcher, has just decomitted from DePaul.
It came from Storako’s travel coach. The next day, Tholl got in the car and drove an hour south to Bloomington Ill., where Storako was playing in a tournament. A week later, Michigan was recruiting her.
“There’s no exact science to it,” Tholl said. “There’s always surprises. And it’s never-ending; it’s really the lifeline of your program. You don’t take one day off recruiting, even if it’s just surfing the web, getting familiar with names and rankings.”
When the coaches think they’ve found the right player, they put in the effort to make her a Wolverine. Sierra Lawrence, an outfielder on the team from 2013 to 2016, was on the fence about her decision until Hutchins flew out to Georgia for one of her basketball games, not an uncommon practice from Michigan’s coaches. Some of Tholl’s favorite memories are sitting around swapping stories with recruits and their families.
But Hutchins doesn’t think this level of thoroughness is anything special. To her, it’s just part of the process.
“Our goal is to get to know the person as a human, as a student, as a softball player, as a family member,” Hutchins said.
Becoming a family comes from dedication. It comes from a bit of luck and patience. It comes from tough, thorough love. And it all starts with Hutchins showing up at 8 a.m. in the freezing cold.