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Long before the first pitch is thrown, a well-oiled machine like the Michigan softball team is already locked into its routine on game days. But there is one crucial ritual that adapts various gameday spirits into a collective in-game focus.

Every time the Wolverines’ starting lineup is introduced before games, the players form a pair of lines in front of their dugout. A slow clap begins, and each player runs through to the front to deliver their own personalized handshake as their name is announced.

Standing front and center, the recipient of every handshake has been junior outfielder Audrey LeClair, and the more you know about her, the less surprising that is. 

“She’s been a sparkplug for us,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “And she has always had that personality of just pure energy, but she’s been able to bring it onto the field and step up into a role that I’m just really proud of. … She’s truly one of the people we’re going to count on.”

Throughout every game, LeClair’s animation in the dugout is present and that positivity keeps the Wolverines engaged.  

This approach has always been second-nature to LeClair’s demeanor, and this season, it has carried direct on-field implications. After an uncharacteristic losing skid to start Big Ten play dialed up the pressure for Michigan, it needed an energy boost. And the energy that LeClair embodies provided perspective to push past the rough patches.

“We always told ourselves to stay loose, stay focused and have fun because we’re going to come out of it and we know we’re a good team,” LeClair said. “There’s no point in tensing up because tensing up just makes it worse. So I’ve been trying to implement that more in these past few weeks, and I think it’s helped a lot.”

And as for LeClair’s in-game identity, the energy she shows in the handshake line remains strong as her role as a player has ramped up. 

Prior to assuming a regular starting spot midway through this season, she was primarily a pinch-runner. Her standout speed positioned her as a regular threat to steal bases, with electrifying results.

LeClair went one for two on stolen base attempts in her COVID-shortened freshman season before going four for five last season. This year, as her role shifted from pinch-running to starting, her production on the basepaths increased too. She successfully stole on 10 of 12 attempts, each time giving a “sparkplug” for a Wolverines’ scoring opportunity. 

“I don’t think there’s anything more fun than when you take something from a team,” LeClair said. “When you steal a base and you look at your dugout and you’re just like ‘I just took that from them and they weren’t able to get me out.’ That’s one of the most exciting parts … because it’s something that you manufacture yourself. That’s kind of on you, about your timing when you steal and all that stuff to set that moment for everybody.”

The game-changing speed isn’t anything new — it has always been a key component to LeClair’s game. In high school, LeClair’s athletic participation was extensive. In addition to softball she played volleyball and basketball, ran track and swam — all of which provided her with the skills and raw athleticism that is apparent in her game now at the collegiate level. 

That love for playing other sports also catalyzed a strong relationship with her legendary head coach at Michigan.

“Basketball, that was my long lost love — I talk about it with Hutch all the time, because she played basketball and softball in college,” LeClair said. “I think any kid should play as many sports as they can growing up and not specialize super early. Also because it’s fun, it’s a great experience.”

After her freshman season was cut short due to COVID, LeClair was eager to get more time on the field as a sophomore, but the pressure to earn a starting role wore down on her play at times, proving difficult.

It was as LeClair settled down and became less rushed though, that she actually accomplished that feat one season later as a junior.

Over this year, LeClair’s development stemmed from mental growth just as much as  physical improvement.

“I mean, as Hutch says, I’m a sparkplug — and that kind of goes both ways,” LeClair said. “I’m very passionate about this game and about our team’s success and when it doesn’t happen I get emotional. I think growing up and maturing in college is learning to channel those negative emotions towards making an adjustment rather than letting it beat you down.”

This growth came to be as LeClair assimilated into a well-established program. One that, with its focus on more long-term success, constantly reinforces a steady and balanced approach.

Starting from her freshman year, LeClair built relationships with the veteran teammates that surrounded her through that process, and their demonstration on how to overcome those emotional struggles were fundamental in her growth.

“(Senior outfielder) Lexie Blair is probably the most even-keeled person that I’ve met in my life,” LeClair said. “She leads by example. I would watch her after every at bat while I was in the dugout and whether it was good or bad, she didn’t get too high and she didn’t get too low. I really tried to reflect that in my game as well.”

Another role model for LeClair was fifth-year third baseman Taylor Bump, who displays some of the same passion as a leader in the infield. When she was younger, Bump had a lot of the same emotional struggles, but since overcoming them, she has developed into one of Michigan’s best hitters. 

She passed that wisdom down to her younger teammate LeClair, who now shares in some of that leadership responsibility as a junior. In addition to the energy boost she provides younger teammates with, her .345 batting average and position as a top three run contributor gives underclassmen reason to look up to her.

“I’ve definitely watched (Audrey) grow a lot this year, in terms of her leadership, in terms of her energy and in terms of her performance as well,” Bump said. “I mean, she’s having a phenomenal year. But she’s definitely one that was under my wing for a while and now we’re kind of mutually here in this leadership position, and it’s been really cool to see her grow through that process.”

In the latter part of this season, LeClair’s contributions have translated onto the scoreboard on several key occasions. 

This season, her clutch contributions began when she looped a walkoff single into shallow left to clinch the series victory against Penn State in early April. The key hitting trickled into May, with a three-run homer in the 7th inning to cement a series sweep of Wisconsin in the final weekend of the regular season. Most recently, in a game where the Michigan bats were dormant, she delivered a hard-hit RBI double to tie up Sunday’s Big Ten Championship.

In those times of triumph though, it was never about the personal success for LeClair. Each time her bat came through for the Wolverines, it was all about her teammates and contributing to  the school she grew up loving.

“I don’t specifically remember those moments,” LeClair said. “I remember celebrating with my team after, those are my favorite parts of it. Anytime someone brings that up or shows me a video, I’m like ‘just wait for my teammate’s reactions, those are my favorite parts.’ And having that role and being able to not only contribute to a win for a team, but represent Michigan, which is my dream school and where I wanted to go — it’s one of my favorite things in the entire world.”

Harnessing her energy has been central to LeClair’s accomplishments on the field and in the dugout. And as one of the team’s foremost participants in social media and NIL deals, that dynamic carries through to her broader presence in the student-athlete world.

“The other day, I got tagged in a TikTok by this young girl.” LeClair said. “I think she was 10. And someone asked her why she’s still playing softball because she didn’t really love it. She posted a picture of me and she said because she showed me that it’s not so bad.”

The importance of athletes using their platform for something greater than the game they play isn’t a foreign concept to the Michigan softball team. Hutchins’ vocal role in pioneering women’s sports, 13 editions of the Softball Academy and autograph signings after every game display the Wolverines’ will to pay it forward.

LeClair takes that priority to heart, and it has molded her identity as an athlete.

“My brand isn’t to make money or to make myself famous, it’s just to reach out to these younger athletes,” LeClair said. “In light of everything that’s been going on in the athlete world with mental health and COVID and all of that, we’ve been reminded that there’s a lot bigger things happening than a softball game. But we are able to use softball to reach out and to make a statement and show support.”

As the Wolverines look for success in the NCAA Regional this weekend — something they’ve failed to do in the past four seasons — they will need to bring energy that sets them apart from  their opponents.

As they look to do so, they can lean on LeClair to provide that spark.