The bases were loaded in the bottom of the first inning, but the energized crowd at Alumni Field had quieted down after an infield popup led to the first out.
While fans openly worried about whether or not the No. 2 Michigan softball team would take advantage of the golden opportunity, the Wolverines were undeterred. As sophomore first baseman Tera Blanco stepped up to the plate, there was no cause for concern in the dugout, given her history of performing under pressure.
Slamming the 1-1 pitch right back up the middle, Blanco laced a single to put Michigan on the board first. Senior center fielder Sierra Lawrence came around to score, followed by senior second baseman Sierra Romero, who skillfully slid around the catcher at home plate.
With one swing of her bat, Blanco had re-energized the crowd at Alumni Field and given the Wolverines a 2-0 lead over Missouri in the first game of the NCAA Super Regional in Ann Arbor. But that wouldn’t be Blanco’s only key contribution on what was an eventful day for the rising star.
In the bottom of the third inning, though, her day almost came to an early end. The Tigers had just cut Michigan’s lead to 3-2 with a two-run homer in the top half of the frame when Blanco returned to the batter’s box for the first time since her clutch single.
In a scary moment, Blanco took the first pitch squarely in the back and immediately dropped to the ground. Michigan coach Carol Hutchins rushed over to check on her, but Blanco stood back up relatively quickly. In a show of toughness, she ran over to first base before heading to the dugout in favor of a pinch runner.
However, when the Wolverines took the field in the top of the fourth, Blanco was right there with them, taking her respective position at first base. With Michigan in the midst of a tight game, Blanco was unwilling to take an early exit in case the Wolverines might need her. As it turned out, they did.
After Missouri right fielder Emily Crane led off the top of the fifth with a bunt single and advanced to second on a groundout, the Tigers had the tying run in scoring position with two outs in the inning. Missouri designated player Chloe Rathburn was at the plate for the first time since her two-run homer, but this time, she hit a weak popup in the air not far from where she was standing.
But Blanco charged down the baseline from first, and as she dove forward with her glove outstretched, the ball nestled perfectly into her grasp. With a stellar grab to end the inning, Blanco unleashed the crowd at Alumni Field into a frenzy again and preserved Michigan’s 3-2 lead.
“That was a great catch, and the kids are fighting,” Hutchins said. “I’m most pleased that they just came out and scratched and clawed, which is the only way you’re going to get through this tournament.”
Though the offense lit up the scoreboard in the first inning with a three-run frame, the Wolverines had failed to score since, and in a close contest, they were in need of insurance runs. And in the bottom half of the frame, Blanco played a pivotal role once more.
Hit by another pitch, Blanco began to walk over to first base when the umpire called her back, claiming she didn’t make enough of an effort to dodge the ball. Though understandably upset, she went back to work and earned a walk a few pitches later regardless. And junior third baseman Lindsay Montemarano made her effort count, launching a two-run shot over the leftfield wall to extend Michigan’s lead to 5-2.
“That’s how you get through the Super Regional: you scratch and claw,” Hutchins said. “The team that puts their head down, that’s when you get knocked out. We just have to keep throwing punches. … We’re in a fight, and we just have to keep fighting and keep fighting. Our fight today was fantastic.”
With their fighting spirit on full display, the Wolverines earned a 5-3 victory and are now one win away from a return trip to the Women’s College World Series. If any player embodied that fight the most, it was Blanco.