The No. 2 Michigan softball team is no stranger to high expectations.
With 18 Big Ten conference titles, 11 Women’s College World Series appearances and a 2005 national championship to its name, the program has been a model of consistent success ever since head coach Carol Hutchins took over the reins in 1985.
However, this season is a bit different. Despite a 60-8 campaign in 2015 in which the Wolverines captured both the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles, last year is remembered for something else.
Falling to No. 1 Florida in Game 3 of the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City remains the lasting memory of a season in which everything else seemed to go right.
With the return of four All-Americans — senior second baseman Sierra Romero, outfielders Kelly Christner and Sierra Lawrence and junior right-handed pitcher Megan Betsa — and all but one starter from last year’s lineup, the Wolverines entered the season ranked No. 2 and have remained firmly planted in that spot through the first month of this 2016 season.
The only way for Michigan to improve, of course, is by winning the national title. However, the Wolverines refuse to buy into the championship or bust mindset, and frankly, they shouldn’t.
“It’s a bust to everyone else,” Romero said. “To us, we trust our preparation, we trust the way that we’ve trained and we don’t change anything. We’re starting over. Last year doesn’t matter.”
For better or worse, what people love about sports is that anything can happen. A standout freshman can be trapped in a sophomore slump. A loaded team can be decimated by the injury bug. And a group accustomed to success can fall victim to complacency.
On the other side of the coin, an under-the-radar player can make a surprise showing. A run-of-the-mill team can go on a tear. And an underdog can overtake a seemingly superior opponent.
None of these situations can be planned for in the preseason rankings, or even midway through the year. Yet, any one of these circumstances could change the course of an entire season.
Rankings seem to be awarded much significance, which is a bit puzzling given what they really are — attempts to combine past performances with personal predictions regarding player progression and future results.
A valiant but often futile effort.
For example, Michigan was ranked No. 8 at the start of the 2015 season, behind several SEC teams. But the Wolverines marched all the way to the World Series, beating many of them in the process.
By the same token, any number of factors could cause a regression from their No. 2 ranking.
No psychic, metric or keyboard warrior can predict the outcome of a season — not in February, March, April, May or June.
So much is conditional, so much up to fate. No matter the expectations, nobody knows what will happen until it happens. Nothing can be taken for granted. Nothing is a given, nothing is guaranteed.
In truth, rankings are just numbers with someone else’s opinion attached.
That’s the mentality Michigan has adopted this season given its high expectations because, to Hutchins, the only opinions that matter are the ones in her locker room. In her mind, rankings are meaningless.
“This team has that burden of expectation that I frankly don’t have,” Hutchins said. “We don’t spend one minute on it. Nobody knows who was ranked second last year in the preseason, but clearly they were wrong.”
Though the Wolverines may have all the pieces in place to make a strong postseason run, in reality, the season has just begun. There’s no telling how, when or where their season will end.
“You don’t just go to the World Series, it’s not on our schedule card,” Hutchins said. “You have to earn it. Making it is a big deal. It’s hard to get there. … How you respond to (challenges) is the key to success.”
Only Michigan’s play on the field in every game will determine the Wolverines’ fate this season.
For better or worse, it’s in their hands.
Ashame can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.