While the No. 2 Michigan softball team missed out on a second consecutive conference title after losing to Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament championship Saturday night, one player in particular nearly carried the Wolverines all the way to victory: sophomore first baseman Tera Blanco.
With key hits in critical moments in each of the three games Michigan played, Blanco came close to leading her team to the conference tournament title.
Blanco has had a breakout year at the plate en route to earning a selection to the All-Big Ten second team. Thriving under pressure has become a common occurrence for the sophomore, who has attributed her growing success to a shift in her mindset.
“(When you think) too much, especially in the game, you do worse,” Blanco said earlier this season. “Thinking less at the plate has really helped me, just zoning in on two things: getting my foot down and getting a good pitch.”
And on a stage as large as a conference tournament — with the bright lights, fierce competition and high stakes — that mindset worked wonders for Blanco.
In the Wolverines’ 10-0 win over Indiana in Friday’s quarterfinal, Blanco wasted no time making her mark. After the first three Michigan batters reached base on a walk, hit-by-pitch and single, the bases were loaded for Blanco and she took advantage, smacking a line drive off the rightfield wall to drive in two runs and give the Wolverines an early lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
In Michigan’s 6-1 win over Penn State in Saturday’s semifinal, Blanco once again helped the Wolverines start off on the right foot. With a runner on first, Blanco launched a towering two-run shot just inside the foul pole in left field to pace a four-run opening frame that ultimately decided the game. And that wouldn’t even be her most timely homer on the day.
Hours later, Michigan was locked in a tight, back-and-forth affair against Minnesota in the title game of the tournament. When Blanco stepped up to the plate in the sixth inning, the score sat deadlocked at 2-2 after the two teams had traded runs in the first and third innings.
Though she found herself down 1-2 in the count against Minnesota pitcher Sara Groenewegen — a finalist for 2016 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year — she didn’t back down. All she needed was one pitch.
And when she found the right one, she left no doubt. Taking the pitch for a ride into the night sky, Blanco unleashed a solo home run over the centerfield wall that broke the tie and sent the Wolverines racing onto the field to greet her. They performed their customary dab as she crossed home plate, and the momentum shifted dramatically, with Michigan looking like it might come away as the victor.
Though the Wolverines went on to lose the game and Blanco fell just shy of being the hero, Michigan would not have been in a position to emerge as champions if it weren’t for her vital contributions. Outside of a strikeout with two outs and the bases loaded in the top of the ninth inning, Blanco could do no wrong for the Wolverines.
It wouldn’t be the first time Blanco has made a statement in the Big Ten Tournament. As a freshman last year, she tallied two home runs and four RBI from the No. 8 spot in the batting order, and Michigan won the tournament title.
The Wolverines will need Blanco to maintain the level of offensive production that has characterized her breakout sophomore season, and that means she will need to continue bringing the mindset that has brought her so much success thus far.
“I feel more comfortable and more confident in myself, and I’m more knowing of my abilities this year, knowing that I can get the job done and (knowing) how good of a player I am,” Blanco said.
Showing up for her team in big moments is what she does best, and as postseason play continues — starting with the NCAA Regional this weekend — Blanco may be called upon to step up when Michigan needs her the most. And as she has demonstrated time and time again this season, when a big moment comes her way, she makes it count.