Adjusting to college and life away from home is difficult for all students — even athletes.

Even freshman Mackenzie Nemitz, whose sister Nikki was an All-American pitcher at Michigan, felt intimidated.

But the No. 2 Michigan softball team has something in place to combat those feelings of loneliness and homesickness. It’s called the “backside” program, and it has been around for years.

The program involves an upperclassman taking a freshman teammate under her wing. Michigan coach Carol Hutchins likens it to having an older or younger sister.

“We want to make sure (freshmen) have a big sister to mentor them and to help them through,” Hutchins said. “We named it the ‘backside’ at one point because it’s somebody who always has your back, and makes sure that you’re pushing yourself when you need to.

“When you’re having a tough time, they’re there to encourage you. More than anything, its largest intent was to make sure the young kids have somebody that’s looking over their shoulder.”

At the annual team picnic, the older players are assigned an incoming freshman as their mentee. From that point on, it’s up to the older player to introduce herself to the freshman when they arrive on campus and form a friendship.

Players will check in with their “backsides” every so often, hang out and generally bond with each other.

It’s a surefire way to develop team chemistry and create lasting relationships.

Nemitz’s backside is senior outfielder and captain Olivia Richvalsky.

“When I got here, having a backside that was an upperclassman made me feel like someone (had) my back even though I (had) no idea what was going on,” Richvalsky said. “Now I feel accountable for one of the younger girls on our team and that’s really cool.”

The two formed a connection quickly, hanging out as soon as Nemitz arrived in Ann Arbor, and have maintained that friendship throughout the year.

“She immediately became my older sister,” Nemitz said. “She took me to her house. We made cookies, did sisterly things and she made me really feel welcome on the team, especially coming in as a freshman. I felt like a part of the team very quickly.

“She checks in on me almost every day. Like a text, ‘Hey, hope you had a good day, see you at practice later.’ She’s really someone that I can go to whenever I’m feeling down or have a question about anything. It’s continued.”

Establishing team chemistry is important for a team that has seven freshmen, including four who played during Michigan’s first tournament of the year, and the Wolverines appear to have done just that with the backside program.

“Backsides are the people you call when you need something quick, you don’t know what to do or want someone to hang out with,” Richvalsky said before laughing. “They have to. They’re your backside.”

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