There are many ways a team can win and lose games. Sometimes, patterns will appear.
Such was the case in the No. 19 Michigan softball team’s weekend slate at the St. Pete Clearwater Elite Invitational. The wins came when hits were produced at the right times, but on a lineup with many established names at the top of the order, it was notable how that production began from the newer ones at the bottom.
The Wolverines didn’t score until their second game of the weekend. In the third inning against Central Florida, junior utility player Audrey LeClair had her first at-bat in a starting role. An error, one advance, and two wild pitches later, it turned into her first run.
That sequence preceded a four-run inning that secured Michigan’s first win of the weekend. Hits from sophomore utility player Sierra Kersten and freshman infielder Ella McVey, along with another reach from LeClair, were all brought home by a triple from graduate-transfer outfielder Kristina Burkhardt.
Michigan’s new faces continued to make an impact in its win over Louisiana State on Saturday, as freshman utility player Annabelle Widra drove in the first run with a double in the second. Shortly thereafter, she recorded the second run via another McVey single. Widra and McVey both reached home again in the fourth.
“Since the day we stepped on campus, we’ve been working hard,” McVey said of her younger teammates. “As a class we’re kind of fearless. We’re not afraid, whether it’s on the mound or in the field or at bat.”
With batting breakthroughs newly joining with the established pitching prowess of the Wolverines, it is easy for the old to fade into the background. Those younger faces, however, filled in gaps defensively, whenever the pitching staff faltered.
Leading the infield slotted at shortstop, McVey had five putouts and eight assists on the weekend.
“It just feels good to get back out on dirt again,” McVey said. “It’s a little different compared to the hops we get on the turf inside. … I’m just trying to do my best to help them out and make their job a little bit easier.”
Though less familiar names found themselves all over the highlight reel in both of Michigan’s wins in Clearwater, the contributions were buoyed by their established counterparts. It was just in ways that stat sheets cannot track.
McVey’s pulse of her fellow young players’ added hunger for success this season largely stems from her older teammates. It’s clear that the level of care for them exists, simply because it goes both ways. From off-field gestures such as having dinner at fifth-year senior infielder Taylor Bump’s house on Saturday night to on-field mentality, the underclassman playmaking is powered by upperclassman support.
“Every time we come in from an important inning, (senior right-hander Alex Storako) pulls one of us aside, and lets us know ‘you know what, you’re great. Believe you’re great,’ ” McVey said. “They just give us a lot of confidence. I think that’s important, especially with a lot of young people in the lineup.”
Now in her 38th season in the position, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins is well aware of the trials and tribulations of initial starts at the college level. It’s why her praise of the newcomers prior to the season started was so valuable — and after this weekend so vindicated.
“They’re not playing a different game, but they’re playing a game at a pacing they’ve not seen before,” Hutchins said. “I love their enthusiasm and they give us a lot of hope … They’re better the second weekend than they were in the first weekend, and as a coach that’s all you can ask for.”
But, of course, even in the wake of newfound successes with specific individuals, the level-headedness towards the big picture remains prioritized.
“Hutch talked a lot this weekend about just focusing on the process,” McVey said. “And that’s what I just tried to do this whole weekend — not make the game bigger than it is.
“She always says the ball doesn’t know who you are. So just stay processed, focused and good things will happen.”