Michigan coach Carol Hutchins stepped from the first baseline toward home plate. Her smile couldn’t have been larger.
“Alright, let’s go baserunners,” she screamed emphatically.
Unlike most cases, though, she wasn't critiquing her players’ form or implementing game strategy. Hutchins was rooting on a handful of the participants at the 8th annual Michigan Softball Academy.
And looking around, it was hard to find anybody at the facility — coaches, players, staff, participants — without that same beaming smile.
The Softball Academy is a training camp-esque environment, run by the players and coaching staff. Participants, donned in pink, rotated through stations run by the players, working on a different skill at each spot. The event's culmination was a social mixer after the on-field activities.
In its eight-year existence, the program has raised over $700,000, according to Hutchins, with hopes of surpassing $1 million soon. All of the proceeds go to the American Cancer Society with the intent of fighting breast cancer. This year’s event raised a total of $135,207.
The Academy was created in 2010 at the Michigan softball summer camp. The team had participated in a walk for breast cancer awareness prior, so the issue was already on Hutchins' mind. Then, when several parents who were dropping off their kids jokingly asked why they couldn't also run the bases — and perhaps drink wine afterwards — the idea for the academy was born.
Hutchins had several conversations with Tami Rummel at the American Cancer Society, and thus, the Michigan Softball Academy was formed.
And for the veteran coach, the message of the event to her team is clear.
“Life isn’t about you, life is about making this world better, and making your community better,” Hutchins said. “We have this platform in this fantastic environment called Michigan softball, with these priviledged kids need to leave here understanding that they’re the luckiest people on earth, that they’re very priviledged, and their duty is to give back to this community.”
Janet Quaine is an original member, having gone to the event regularly since its inception in 2010. A breast cancer survivor treated at the University’s clinics who was also an avid softball player and fan, Quaine marveled at the importance of the event — and the job Hutchins has done promoting it to participants and players alike.
“I was under the age of 50 and had breast cancer that… most of the time you’re not even supposed to get a mammogram,” Quaine said. “It kind of all fit together, because I love softball and U-of-M saved my life.”
“It’s just very nice that all the girls take all this time to do this, and Coach Hutch is just awesome to do that… there’s just smiles and grins everywhere. … All goes for a good cause, too.”
The participants are here for a good cause, no doubt. But they’re also here to play softball — some more seriously than others.
“I was checking the MVPs into the locker room," Quaine said. "Some of the people were coming and saying, ‘You didn’t bring a glove?’ ”
Quaine, a former shortstop, hung up her glove several years ago. She played softball throughout her youth and after high school. Times were different then, and she never pursued a chance to play in college.
“I came from the thumb,” she said, pointing to her small, rural hometown of Westland, Michigan. “So it was Class D, and nobody ever said ‘Hey, you should go to college and play ball,’ which I probably should have.”
For people like Quaine — who now works in the University’s clinical department — the event cultivates a fun softball atmosphere while serving as a crucial fundraiser for the future of cancer research. For Hutchins, it also doubles as a necessary educational experience for her team.
“Years ago, when we first did this, (former football coach) Lloyd Carr asked me ‘Why do you pick the night before your biggest weekend of the year’ — which is typically when we have it — to do this?” Hutchins said.
“And I said, ‘Because, there’s nothing like giving, giving, giving to make kids really understand that this world isn't about them. And honestly, their sense of empowerment, the joy they get in knowing they’re contributing to such a great cause, I mean they’re proud as peacocks, and they have a great time doing it.”
Sophomore catcher Alex Sobczak, one of the many Michigan softball players with ear-to-ear grins today, certainly heeded that advice.
“Personally, it’s my favorite time of year,” Sobczak said, in reference to the Pink Game and the Softball Academy. “To give back and just realize how much these people are sacrificing for a greater cause.”