It’s been six long years since the No. 16 Michigan softball team has made it past a regional.
For a team with seven returning starters that’s filled with senior and fifth-year stars who experienced heartbreak last season in the Seattle regional, all the pieces appear to be in place for a run this season. But this talented and experienced core has seen many capable players come and go, still unable to get over the regional hump.
So maybe it’s foolish to think that the introduction of this year’s freshman class will lead to any other outcome. Maybe it’s foolish to say that inexperienced players will be able to rapidly adapt to the college game and make enough of an impact to push this team through the ceiling they’ve bumped their head against for the past five years.
But maybe with a freshman class as talented as this year’s, those unseasoned players will be exactly what the Wolverines need to finally win their regional.
“You never really know how freshmen are going to come in and adjust to this level of play,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “We know they’re capable, but there’s a lot of learning. … I think all of them have a chance to contribute to this program.”
The Wolverines’ 2022 freshman class — tabbed as the 11th-ranked class in the nation according to Extra Innings Softball — features players who add potential and depth in the circle and at the plate. The most highly touted prospect in the class is eighth-ranked recruit Annabelle Widra. She’s a two-way player who earned numerous awards for her performance in high school, including Alabama’s Gatorade Player of the Year and a selection to the MaxPreps All-American team in 2021.
“At the plate she’s a factor, she’s a factor on the field, and she’s in our pitching depth chart,” Hutchins said. “She’s doing quite well, she’s improved a lot, and she’s really flourishing under (Michigan assistant coach Jen Brundage). I expect her to contribute, and I hope she contributes from day one.”
The Wolverines also added two more decorated freshman pitchers to slot in behind the star tandem of senior right-hander Alex Storako and fifth-year left-hander Meghan Beaubien. 16th-ranked recruit Lauren Derkowski is a three-time All-Illinois honoree. 26th-ranked Emerson Aiken is a two-time winner of Virginia’s Gatorade Player of the Year and a 2021 Extra Innings Softball All-American.
“We’ve got our two aces, and I do expect them to carry the largest load,” Hutchins said. “But we’ve got some young kids that need to get some experience and can give us the depth that we need.”
Besides Widra, Michigan added two more freshmen on the offensive side. Middle infielder Ella McVey — the nation’s No. 44 recruit — posted a .500 career batting average throughout high school and brings strong defensive skills to the team.
Outfielder Ellie Sieler recorded a .664 batting average during her senior season, and ended her high school career on a 79-game hitting streak. Though not as highly touted as her freshman teammates coming in — only ranked 101st — Sieler has already shown her potential in the preseason.
“Since day one, she’s been one of the most even-keeled players on this team,” senior outfielder Lexie Blair said. “She doesn’t talk much, she kind of just does the job. … I feel very confident that she’s gonna be a huge producer on this team this season.”
Added Hutchins: “She’s just been amazing, really an unsung recruit. She makes plays look easy that I can’t believe. … And she’s got a great bat. I think she’s going to contribute right away.”
In every area of the field, the Wolverines have freshmen brimming with potential, providing depth behind the returning starters. They have freshmen who are learning every single day, waiting for their chance to contribute in whatever way they’re asked to.
When they get their chance, if these freshmen can live up to their potential, they can be the spark that sends this team over the edge. They can give this team that final little push they need to meet the goals the veterans have had for years.
If these freshmen can live up to their potential, they can help push this team all the way to Oklahoma City.