By all standards, the No. 21 Michigan softball team is on a roll.
The Wolverines’ return to Alumni Field has gone as planned, with four wins in four games. Following a 4-4 start, they’ve won 13 out of their last 15 games, including three ranked wins. And as good as senior right-hander Alex Storako has been — not to mention fifth-year left-hander Meghan Beaubien starting to look like her vintage self — Michigan’s consistency relies on whether the bats can steadily contribute.
“We talk about remaining process oriented as opposed to result oriented,” Michigan associate head coach Bonnie Tholl said following the team’s win over Oakland on Wednesday. “Sometimes it’s hard to do when you’re starting the season and you want to score runs and get in the lineup. But they’ve really bought into seeing that the process is creating a better hitter out of themselves.”
And as the bats have found consistency in the process, the offense now finds itself with power arising in new places. Players who formerly acted primarily as hitters for average now can jumpstart the offense with their ability to notch extra-base hits. Key examples of this include junior first baseman Lauren Esman and senior catcher Hannah Carson.
Through this streak, both Esman and Carson have shifted into a higher gear. Esman has already recorded eight extra-base hits, surpassing her total from last season in two-thirds as many at-bats, and tripled her previous home run output. Carson has also eclipsed her previous home run total, and leads the team in RBIs with 21.
“I’ve just been trying to stay loose and have fun,” Carson said after recording a double and three RBIs in Tuesday’s victory against Toledo. “I’ve been working on keeping a nice fluid swing. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to hit it harder, but that’s really not what you should be doing.”
Beyond Carson and Esman taking on a heavier load than ever, the Wolverines’ recent offensive success has been lifted further by power contributions from the bench.
Though a greatly expanded role seems unlikely for sophomore catcher Keke Tholl — as Carson has the starting job locked up — she’s provided a spark in her limited appearances, with multiple pinch-hit home runs. And against Kent State in Kentucky, sophomore infielder Kaylee Rodriguez recorded a pinch-hit long ball of her own.
“You want to have kids who can contribute whether they’re starting or coming into the game as a non-starter,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said March 8. “… The most important thing we can do is keep everybody involved.”
And as much as these players have stepped up, their progress feels like a reasonable step forward from past performances. For one player, though, the leap she has made in recent weeks is so vastly beyond her past production that it would have seemed almost impossible at season’s onset.
That player is sophomore utility player Sierra Kersten.
During her freshman season, Kersten struggled. She started most games, but despite showing a few flashes throughout the season, she could not consistently contribute to the Wolverines’ offense. The result was a poor .224/.252/.296 slash line.
“Last year, she struggled to get extra-base hits,” Bonnie said after the Oakland win. “Many of her hits were singles and sneaky bunts.”
Now, Kersten has exploded.
Since the start of Michigan’s spring break trip on Feb. 25, Kersten is batting .394. She’s hit four home runs over that stretch, good for the team lead, and recorded 13 RBIs. On the season, she’s elevated her slash line to .350/.381/.725.
“You are seeing the absolute confidence and maturity of somebody who is really squaring the ball up,” Bonnie said. “Making the adjustment has given her swing a bit more violence, adding bat speed, and the bat speed adds distance.”
Granted, the competition the Wolverines have faced as of late is weaker than the teams they squared off against in early-season tournaments. Simply put, the majority of pitchers from the MAC barely stack up against top pitchers from the power conferences.
But in any case, continuing this surge of power from new contributors will help the bats keep pace with the arms’ expected success.