After starting the season 8-1 in two consecutive weekend trips to Florida, the No. 2 Michigan softball team kept the momentum going in California with four wins in five games in the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic.
The Wolverines’ offense continued to put on a show at the plate, beginning with Friday’s hotly contested 16-9 victory over No. 12 Oklahoma. With a season-high 13 hits, including four home runs, Michigan scored early and often in the fireworks display put on by two highly-ranked foes.
The Wolverines jumped on the board first, building up a 4-0 lead through the top of the third inning. However, the Sooners quickly bounced back in the bottom of the frame, responding with five runs to take the lead.
After tight back-and-forth play through the next two innings, the game sat at a 7-7 deadlock heading into the sixth. Then, Michigan’s bats exploded. Senior second baseman Sierra Romero got the ball rolling with a first-pitch, two-run single just past the outstretched glove of her younger sister Sydney, Oklahoma’s freshman third baseman. Senior outfielders Kelsey Susalla and Kelly Christner followed suit with three-run and two-run shots, respectively, that flew over the right-field wall to cap a seven-run inning to win the game.
“The goal is just to have good at-bats when you’re up there,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “We hit the ball well and sometimes it doesn’t work out, but the pressure is taken off our offense when they realize whether they get it done or not somebody behind them will. That really takes the pressure off the individuals, and I think that helps us.”
The Wolverines cruised through the second day of competition, handling Oklahoma State, 11-2, and North Carolina State, 9-1, in a pair of five-inning run-rule victories. Michigan wasted no time against the Cowgirls, firing on all cylinders in the first inning to plate nine runs and bat around the order. Against the Wolfpack, the Wolverines drove in four runs in the third and two in both the fourth and fifth innings to seal the win.
Meanwhile, in the circle, fifth-year senior right-hander Sara Driesenga shut down the Cowgirls, allowing just four hits and striking out five while falling just two fifth-inning runs shy of a shutout. Junior right-hander Megan Betsa followed suit in the nightcap, striking out a season-best 11 in a complete-game one-hitter over the Wolfpack.
“We continue to grow, and we count on our offense,” Hutchins said. “We’ve got some very strong offensive players. We hit the heck of out the ball all weekend — we’re a good hitting team. But both games (Saturday), our pitchers were on their game. Both Sara and Megan had great process. We just need our pitchers to relax and simply do what they do and trust that their team will help them win. So we’re still evolving into that. We’re not good enough yet.”
Facing its second ranked opponent in No. 9 Washington on Sunday, Michigan couldn’t finish off another undefeated weekend. The Wolverines succumbed to the Huskies, narrowly falling in a close 6-5 encounter to put an end to their nine-game win streak.
Trading blows throughout the game, the two teams seemed evenly matched. Washington found the first breakthrough in the bottom of the third, courtesy of a three-run homer off the bat of shortstop Ali Aguilar. The Wolverines responded promptly in the following half-inning, using a sacrifice fly by freshman catcher Alex Sobczak and a two-run homer by junior third baseman Lindsay Montemarano to even the score. Despite having a one-run lead late in the seventh inning, Michigan gave up a passed ball and a sac fly that plated the tying and winning runs for the Huskies in walk-off fashion.
Needing to answer back against Long Beach State, its final opponent of the weekend, Michigan relied on the formula that had worked so well in the first two days of the tournament.
It bookended the game with three-run innings, including a three-run bomb from Romero to open the scoring and give her a milestone 250 career RBI. The Wolverines scored in all but one inning, and launched three more homers to run their tally up to 11 through the weekend. And in the circle, Driesenga continued her winning ways by striking out five while allowing nine hits in 5.2 innings of work before Betsa earned the save with three strikeouts in 1.1 innings.
“It’s taxing — it’s tiring,” Hutchins said. “It’s fatiguing physically, but it’s also fatiguing mentally. We’re throwing a lot of pitches, so we’re adding stress to what we already have. We need to work on becoming more efficient on the mound because we’re relying very heavily on Sara and Megan. We need them to become more efficient. That will help them.”