On the brink of elimination, tensions ran high in the Michigan softball team’s dugout. In the on-deck circle, Faith Canfield was as relaxed as ever.

Trailing by a pair of runs in the seventh inning of the deciding game in the 2017 NCAA Regional, the 20th-ranked Wolverines found themselves desperate for offense on the road against No. 6 seed Washington. Just three outs stood between Michigan and the demise of its season.

Damp clumps of dirt broke free from junior right fielder Aidan Falk’s cleats as she trekked across the dugout to retrieve her bat. As Falk warmed up to lead off the Wolverines’ final chance to salvage the season, Canfield — a sophomore at that point — grabbed her by the arm.

“I don’t care what you do, just go have one hell of an at-bat,” Falk recalled Canfield telling her, “because this is your last one and it’s the one you’re going to remember most.”

Falk took the words to heart. Two pitches into her plate appearance, she laced a single up the middle to ignite Michigan’s comeback bid.

“There was a lot on the line,” Falk told The Daily in a phone interview last month. “(Canfield) took it as her time to be like, ‘You should be proud of what you’ve done. Enjoy it.’ She’s not one to be overly emotional or cozy, but when she does show you that side of her, it’s very meaningful.”

Some players stand up on a chair and berate a locker room of teammates. Canfield is not one of them — instead, she’s often a soft-spoken leader who emphasizes living in the moment. Her attitude epitomizes the fact that leadership comes in many forms.

Canfield sees the game through a different lens, one which has fostered a unique college career brimming with memories such as Falk’s. Canfield naturally focuses on the human side of softball — a trait which has become increasingly rare in a game driven by analytics.

Though the Wolverines fell short on that ill-fated Seattle afternoon, Canfield’s style of leadership is invaluable.

With top-seeded Michigan — this season’s outright conference champion — set to take the field in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals on Friday, the final month of Canfield’s storied career has arrived. And with a solid showing in this week’s Big Ten Tournament, the Wolverines could earn the right to host an NCAA Regional of their own.

For Canfield, a much-anticipated climax has taken shape. In the next month, she could lead Michigan back to the Women’s College World Series for the first time since her freshman season. Or, as they’ve done the last two seasons, the Wolverines may bow out of the conference tournament in the quarterfinals and fail to survive the NCAA Regional.

Regardless of how May unfolds, Canfield is going to stay true to her own style of leadership. So far, it’s made all the difference in her memorable Michigan tenure.

***

It might’ve been on the practice field. It could’ve been in the locker room afterwards. Abby Ramirez doesn’t remember the exact moment it hit her, but she’ll never forget her takeaway from the first practice of Canfield’s freshman season.

“This girl is for real,” Ramirez remembered thinking.

When Canfield got to campus in the fall of 2015, she began her career ahead of the curve. Ramirez — a two-time All-Big Ten shortstop who graduated in 2017 — recalled being impressed with her noticeable confidence and natural instincts from day one.

As a college freshman, Canfield put her decorated high school and travel ball careers behind her. She watched her sister Jamie succeed as an All-Big 12 catcher at Nebraska from 2004-2007, but still admittedly felt the pressure of walking into a program that finished as the national runner-up a mere three months earlier.

On top of the transition to a new level, Canfield found herself thrown for a loop by a slight position change. She claims to “love defense,” so her role as the team’s designated player in 2016 meant spending most of the season without her beloved glove.

“Coming in freshman year, it was a different role that I totally wasn’t used to,” Canfield said. “But I was all for it. I did whatever the team needed.”

The college level brought about its own challenges, and Ramirez had the pleasure of watching Canfield improve firsthand. As middle infielders, their position groups often trained together.

Only a few practices into the preseason, the Wolverines arranged a fall scrimmage in East Lansing. There, Canfield stepped into the batter’s box for her first college at-bat. As she walked up to the plate, she gazed at the field, the desolate bleachers and the clamoring dugouts. So, this was college softball — the daunting, preeminent world of its own to which she looked forward for so many years.

Canfield wasted no time getting her feet wet. Just a few pitches into her plate appearance, she uncorked a powerful swing. When the ball landed on the other side of the outfield wall, she began her home run trot — the first of many to come.

For Canfield, that trot took the world off her shoulders. It reminded her that she was still playing the same game she excelled at her whole life. According to Ramirez, it taught Canfield not to make too big a deal out of the new level.

After her mindset fell into place, the rest of her game followed suit.

“(Canfield’s) realization that she had so much potential and that she is such a good player was huge,” Falk said. “Once she became aware of that, it allowed her to help her teammates rise up, too. As a player, making your teammates around you better is one of the best qualities you can have. She made the team better as a whole.

“She’s very mature. I was very impressed with the way she played. She didn’t play like a freshman. She played like a seasoned player at the plate and on the field.”

After shedding the misconception that the college level would be drastically different from high school or travel ball, Canfield came into her own. Everyone on the field took notice.

So, this was college softball.

***

Unlike most top recruits, Canfield’s name wasn’t initially on the starting lineup card in 2016. Little did she know, the role that awaited her would be just as beneficial in the long run.

Now in her 35th season, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins knows a starter when she sees one. To this day, Hutchins believes Canfield could’ve cracked almost any starting lineup in the country as a freshman. But for the Wolverines, there was no doubt that then-senior and eventual National Player of the Year Sierra Romero would be the starting second baseman during Canfield’s first season.

“There’s no one better to play behind,” Canfield said. “Nobody’s going to beat out Sierra Romero, but I was working that hard everyday to try.”

Even so, Canfield worked her way into the lineup. According to Ramirez, she began her career ahead of the curve. It was an open secret that she’d be the heir to Romero’s throne at second base the following season, but Canfield still started 33 of the team’s 59 games as a freshman — 22 as the designated player, eight at third base and three at second base.

Canfield seized the chance to spend a year learning under Romero. Each day of practice provided a new opportunity to learn from the best, and, as a result, Romero took her under her wing. That season, Romero posted a .451 batting average and 79 RBI en route to 2016 National Player of the Year honors. Canfield diligently watched every moment of it.

“(Canfield) looked up to Romero a lot,” Falk said. “You could tell when she needed advice about anything, she looked to Romero. She really capitalized on the fact that she had such a good asset to her in playing behind Romero. … Anyone looking at the field can see how talented she is, and I think Romero saw that and helped her out.”

From the outside looking in, anybody could see the bond between Canfield and Romero. To Canfield, it was more than a mentorship. She saw a strikingly similar version of herself in Romero’s style of leadership, one that resonated within her.

“(Romero) was someone who led by example, too,” Canfield said. “She was laid back. She said things when they needed to be said, but she was more of someone who does what needs to be done and others would follow. I think, more than anything, that’s something in terms of leadership style I took away from her.”

The following year, the torch was passed.

Romero graduated, and Canfield took the reins at second base. When it came time for Canfield to become an everyday player, Hutchins had a message for her.

“You don’t have to replace Romero,” Hutchins recalled telling her, referring to Romero’s monstrous offensive numbers. “Just do your part and help us win.”

That’s all Canfield has ever done since.

She’s posted a batting average greater than .390 in each of the three seasons since Romero’s departure. Canfield has been a staple of consistency atop the batting order, and her 24 homers and 115 RBI stack up well against some of the nation’s other top infielders. On Wednesday, she notched her third first team All-Big Ten selection.

Canfield was ready to embrace the role when it became hers for the taking. Being compared to one of the greatest Wolverines to ever pick up a bat wasn’t easy at first, but Canfield has since made the role her own. Like leadership, greatness isn’t bound to a strict set of qualifications. The program’s two most recent cornerstones are great in their own independent ways. The transition from Romero to Canfield was never a matter of filling shoes — rather, it was a matter of seeing one program icon step up and assume the role of another when the time came.

***

Canfield’s senior season has been her best yet, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

After 2019’s non-conference slate saw the Wolverines dip below .500 six games into a season for the first time since 2001, Hutchins told The Daily she wanted to see Canfield “take this team by the horns.”

Michigan came back from its final non-conference road trip with a record of just 12-10. The struggles seemed inescapable and frustrations were mounting. Similar to her freshman year, Canfield felt pressure. This time, it was the pressure to right the ship.

In the team’s home opener, Canfield gave the Wolverines the jolt they needed. In her first home at-bat of the season, she lifted a no-doubt home run to deep left field. When it rang off the top of the flagpole, she was already halfway to first base.

Like her fall ball home run from 2016 in East Lansing, a realization set in. Even as a senior, it’s still the same game she’s dominated since Little League.

Since then, Michigan has won 28 of its last 29 contests. Now in her second season as a captain, Canfield’s leadership has been a centerpiece of the program’s 11th Big Ten title in the last 12 years. Most of all, it’s because she knows what it takes.

“Being a captain is really, really hard,” Canfield said. “I experienced that last year, and coming into this year, I kind of second-guessed going for it again because I knew it forced me to be louder and not as laid back as I am or be a lead by example (person). It forces you to call people out when they need to be called out.”

As a captain, she has established a balance between leading by example, taking a laid back approach and getting vocal to address audiences both small and large.

Canfield’s leadership has evolved as she’s grown as a player. As a younger player, she preferred to let others lead. As an upperclassman, knowing when someone needed to be called out and following through with it become instinctive.

This season, she’s married the two extremes.

“This year, I’ve been a little bit more aggressive,” Canfield said. “I do what needs to be done and people follow my lead. I feel like that’s the type of leader I am. I’m going to be the one who’s out there cleaning up after everybody and then hopefully they see and follow along.”

Now, in the month of May, Canfield knows it’s time to take it to the next level.

“It’s going out of your way to give people an extra boost when they need it,” Canfield said. “Especially in the (postseason), it gets really challenging, so just being there for someone and letting them know that you believe in them no matter what happens is really huge.”

Canfield has never been the flashiest player on the diamond, but she’s always been the most consistent. During her time at Michigan, she’s tackled the challenge of stepping into Romero’s vacated role by forging her own path.

Through ups and downs, the evolution of Canfield’s leadership has been the underlying foundation of her success.

“(Canfield) is not just your typical player,” Falk said. “She’s a leader. She’s what you want in a Michigan softball player.”

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