Last year. Last year. Last year.
It’s the thing fans of the No. 16 Michigan softball team can’t stop talking about. It’s the thing the players say they don’t talk about. It’s the elephant in the room, the monkey on their backs.
Last year, the Wolverines came in ranked No. 6 in the country, a preseason Women’s College World Series favorite.
Last year, they didn’t win the Big Ten, and in the end it wasn’t really that close.
Last year, they lost in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament, to Michigan State of all teams.
Last year, they didn’t even make it out of NCAA regionals.
Some of that weight washed away with the Gatorade the players poured over Michigan coach Carol Hutchins’ head after the Wolverines clinched the Big Ten title that eluded them last year. But the fact remains that this team remains largely unproven — Michigan waltzed through an easy conference schedule and hasn’t faced a ranked team since early March — and the regular-season finale, in which the Wolverines were run-ruled at home by Ohio State, left a bad taste in their mouths.
But on Saturday, Michigan will stare last year right in the face. Facing it in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal will be the Spartans — an eerily familiar situation.
And with it will come the chance for the Wolverines to put last year behind them, once and for all.
“Right now, I’m not really thinking about what happened last year,” said junior catcher Katie Alexander after Michigan beat the Spartans, 1-0, on April 11. “Sure, it’s always in the back of my mind, but for us this year, we’re seriously trying to take it one game at a time.”
Therein lies the rub. Hutchins frequently preaches that this isn’t last year, that all that matters is right now, that the Wolverines’ only focus should be on the next pitch and the next game. But even after two regular-season victories over Michigan State, last year is still something they think about.
The quarterfinal is a game that means nothing in the grand scheme of things. Any single-elimination tournament is a small sample size with the possibility for flukiness, and the Wolverines have proven a better team than the Spartans during the regular season. The NCAA Tournament is the one that really matters.
But it’s also a game that means everything. Win, and the ghosts of last year will be no more. But lose, and they’ll continue to haunt Michigan, threatening the confidence of a young team in a highly cerebral sport.
After the Wolverines’ few losses this year, Hutchins has uttered a familiar refrain of “They’re trying too hard.” The wins come when Michigan players get out of their heads and stay loose.
But it’s all too easy to see the Wolverines getting stuck in their heads, thinking, “Remember last year?” It’s easy to see how a desire to prevent last year’s result could lead to pressing at the plate. It’s easy to see how it could lead to history repeating itself.
Michigan’s ultimate goal is a Big Ten Tournament championship and a Women’s College World Series run. It’s a goal of which the Wolverines are more than capable, talent-wise. But the biggest challenge isn’t physical, it’s mental, and that’s a challenge that’s less familiar.
To achieve their goals, first they’ll have to vanquish their own demons.
Gerson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @cyan_sunshine.