At this point last season — the week leading up to the Michigan softball team’s home-opening weekend — anticipation was building for the Wolverines. They had just emerged from a gruelling 23-game road schedule to open the season that sent them to Florida, North and South Carolina and California and were eyeing their first home games against Ball State.
After winning its first ten games of the year, Michigan was faltering. It went 5-8 in their final thirteen games and was ready for the revitalization that returning to play in Ann Arbor would bring.
Then, everything changed. Two days before the Wolverines were set to take the field, it was announced that their season was over due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.
“Last year was an extreme heartbreak, (to be) preparing all week for our home opener and then having it taken away from us like that,” senior infielder Taylor Bump said.
Now, a little over a year later and nearly two years since their last home game — a 2-1 regional final loss to James Madison University — the No. 23 Wolverines will finally return to competitive play in Alumni Field.
And they can’t wait.
“Alumni Field is the best,” junior right-hander Alex Storako said. “It’s a feeling like no other, so I’m really excited to finally get back out there. … It’s been way, way too long.”
Michigan enters the series on a tear, winning seven consecutive games and boasting a 13-3 record. The return home can add more fuel to their fire.
Only once in the past seven seasons have the Wolverines lost more than two games in Alumni Field, posting a 12-3 home record in 2014. In the last nine full seasons, dating back to 2011, Michigan holds a stellar 147-19 record, constituting an .856 win percentage.
“There’s just an edge of us playing at Alumni Field,” Bump said. “That’s where we hit every day … so I think it’s just a comfortability aspect in a way.”
“But I don’t take any credit away from the pitchers we’re going to be facing, we still have to do our job and have good at-bats.”
As Michigan seeks to continue success on its home turf, the Spartans will look to spoil the homecoming. Although sporting a 6-10 record, they will travel to Ann Arbor carrying a three-game win streak of their own. They also have one of the most promising young pitchers in the conference: freshman Ashley Miller.
Miller has a 1.00 ERA, 25th-best in the nation. Her ERA is fourth in the Big Ten behind Michigan’s tandem of Storako and senior left-hander Meghan Beaubien, and Illinois’s Sydney Sickels. Miller, who has not given up more than two earned runs in an outing all season, will pose challenges for the Wolverines as their offense looks to continue its upward momentum entering the homestand.
“We’re really sticking with our process of getting stronger in the box,” associate head coach Bonnie Tholl said of Michigan’s preparations this week. “But our goal is still to be able to utilize our power to its potential, so it’s ok if we get some swings and misses this weekend as long as we square the ball up more than not.”
Even as the Wolverines’ young lineup focuses on the game-plan for Michigan State, their excitement is hard to hide. With half of the roster having never played a game at Alumni Field, Hutchins emphasized how grateful they are to finally be able to play competitively in the premium facility on Sunday.
Sophomore infielder Julia Jimenez, who will make her own Alumni Field debut on Friday, captured the roster’s sentiment as they approach the long-awaited return home:
“Being back at our home field is going to be an advantage,” Jimenez said on March 16. “Because we can hit the crap out of the ball.”