Take one look at Alumni Field, the home of Michigan softball, and you’ll be reminded of the program’s success. Hanging directly behind the first base seats is a giant poster of the 2005 National Championship team holding their trophy.
Walk inside the Donald R. Shepherd Softball Center clubhouse and take a stroll up the stairs to the conference room. You’re immediately greeted with a life-sized painting of a past team with the famous quote from Bo Schembechler — “The team, the team, the team.”
Take a step back from the door and you’ll see the boards that hang next to it with the names of All-Big Ten and All-American Michigan softball players.
While each is a reminder of the greatness of the Michigan softball program as a whole, to me, the focus is much clearer.
It’s the faces that stand out.
Looking at the 2005 poster I see Samantha Findley — the freshman who hit a three-run homer to win the 2005 World Series. On the boards next to the conference room door, I see Sierra Romero’s name, among Tera Blanco’s and Faith Canfield’s and the image of their faces immediately comes to mind. In the life-sized picture of a past team, I see Megan Betsa screaming as she’s running to her teammates to celebrate a win.
Samantha Findley, Sierra Romero, Tera Blanco, Faith Canfield, Megan Besta.
They’re the players I followed on Instagram in seventh grade when I decided I wanted to be a Michigan softball player. They’re the girls I dressed up as for Halloween. They’re the older sisters I never had. They’re the role models I followed and aspired to be.
They’re the faces of Michigan softball and the legacy it boasts.
But this year, it’s undetermined who that face will be.
Flash back to the start of the season, when a roster was first being determined. One can only imagine what flew through Michigan head coach Carol Hutchins’s head as she crafted her starting lineup. With the absence of five key seniors from last year, there was room for older players to finally get their shot, or for younger players to step up and shine.
For many years the Wolverines were typically managed by one standout athlete. They’re the players you list off the top of your head. The ones Hutchins pencils into the lineup or trusts in the circle without hesitation.
While no one has emerged to carry that mantle this season, many have made their case.
After outfielder Lexie Blair’s breakout freshman season last year, it seemed straightforward to deem her the face of the team. But after a sophomore hitting slump that’s left her with a .307 batting average, a slip to second in the batting order, and just 11 runs scored over 23 games so far — compared to her .406 and 42 runs, it’s hard to clearly determine that she’s the favorite for the role.
Junior left-hander Meghan Beaubien also seemed like a clear choice. In years prior, Michigan has been known to have one ace — a pitcher that does the majority of the work, and controls the defense. Since 2004 (the furthest back stats go), with the exception of two seasons, Michigan has had a pitcher over 200 innings and below 2.00 ERA. Instead, this year, Beaubien and sophomore right hander Alex Storako have been tag-teaming it, working together. Earlier in the season, Hutchins likened them to “co-aces.”
Commanding the outfield in center, senior Haley Hoogenraad could also step up to the job. She’s one of only three seniors consistently placed in the lineup, and while she’s been a consistent hitter throughout her career, that’s something she (along with the rest of the lineup) has struggled with this season. Despite the inconsistencies, she’s brought the most power hitting to the team thus far. She’s also a member of the leadership team that Hutchins has begun using this season, replacing the team’s typical system of two captains.
Infielder Natalia Rodriguez could also have been considered — though her shift from shortstop to second base two weekends ago has added a dimension of uncertainty to her junior season. Julia Jimenez jumped right in at shortstop, to replace Rodriguez at shortstop, but Jimenez had two errors this weekend and has batted inconsistently, making it unclear if she’s the right fit.
For each player I just listed, there’s a caveat — a ‘but …’ attached to all of them. It might be due to the Wolverines’ inexperience. Despite the number of underclassmen in the rotation, there are also a fair number of upperclassmen players who haven’t seen much in-game playing time before this season.
“I think that it’s probably one of the most inexperienced groups we’ve had out there, in a while, Hutchins said on Feb. 25. “But I think they’re handling it fantastic. I think they’ve been competing, competing with each other, competing with their opponents.”
But the inexperience hasn’t fazed any of the previous faces of Michigan softball in the past. Sierra Romero started all 64 games at short-stop her freshman year and totaled a .841 slugging percentage. Megan Betsa led the team in strikeouts — with 150 — her freshman season. While players like Blair and Jimenez have both shown they can play above their class-standing, they both still come with that added caveat — that ‘but …’.
“That really is the difference-maker in good teams and great teams,” Hutchins said. “Is a person or a couple people in your lineup who will elevate your lineup, who inspire trust when they have their at-bats. And you definitely need some sparks. We’re looking for some spark as well. We’ve got some sparks that need to ignite.”
Maybe this season will get by without a face of Michigan softball. Maybe it will be a season where they’ll win by committee, as Hutchins implied with many sparks.
Don’t get me wrong, not every team has a face. And they do just fine. But the face is important for Michigan. The Wolverines, especially now, need a spark. With little offensive consistency and games slipping through their fingers in late innings, they need someone to pull it back together, get gritty and fight through the adversity. That person who rallies when the team is down, and makes big plays.
Or maybe, someone will rise up to join the cast of characters on the boards, in the team photos, or even in a National Championship poster. Maybe they’ll answer the question on all of our minds.
Who is the face of Michigan softball?
Telgenhof can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @abst16.