First-year head coaches always bring with them a degree of uncertainty, and Bonnie Tholl is no exception. The Michigan softball coach has dealt with replacing transfers and filling the void of a storied predecessor.
But for the Wolverines, there is one welcome certainty: Tholl is an elite recruiter.
Tholl played a heavy hand in all the success Michigan had under Carol Hutchins, as both an assistant coach and the longtime recruiting coordinator. Tholl consistently supplied the program with high level recruits, many of whom became All-Americans.
Her most recent class is no different — ranked sixth in the nation by Extra Innings Softball.
A class ranked that highly — and featuring the country’s No. 5 and No. 6 recruits — will be expected to contribute early. Tholl has to replace several graduates and transfers from last season’s lineup, and the strength of her recruiting class could help fill those voids.
“We empower these freshmen to come up and do big things, because that’s what we’re expecting them to do,” fifth-year utility player Melina Livingston said. “We’re expecting them to come out and be confident in who they are.”
A freshman expected to step up immediately is catcher Lilly Vallimont — the No. 5 player and top catcher in the 2022 class. With three-year starter Hannah Carson leaving through the transfer portal, Vallimont will compete with junior Keke Tholl for the position. While Keke received playing time last season, it will be hard to keep a player as highly-touted as Vallimont on the bench if she can adjust to the collegiate level early in this season.
Vallimont was dominant behind the plate at Trenton (MI) High School. She posted a .563 batting average as a junior and shattered numerous school records en route to being named All-State.
Carson was consistently one of Michigan’s most feared hitters last season and her production will be difficult to replace. Keke’s hitting, however, was underwhelming — with a .185 batting average — in her appearances. If Vallimont’s prowess behind the plate can translate to this level, she has the ability to find at bats early this season.
Just behind Vallimont on Extra Innings Softball’s list is shortstop Avery Fantucci — the No. 6 prospect in the country and a three time All-State player in Georgia.
Unlike at the catcher position, the Wolverines return core players from last year’s infield, including shortstop Ella McVey. A standout fielder, McVey’s glove provides Michigan’s pitchers with strong defensive support. But behind the plate, McVey isn’t as valuable as in the field. As a slap-hitter she finds her way on base but lacks power — slugging .294 last season.
Fantucci has the potential to elevate the team’s offense output at shortstop — while maintaining the stellar defense that McVey provides. In high school, Fantucci was not only a softball star, but also an All-State basketball star. Her elite athleticism has the potential to translate into fielding that can match McVey’s abilities. Where Fantucci can potentially provide a boost over McVey is behind the plate. Throughout her high school career she slugged .727, power that McVey can’t provide as a slap hitter.
The star potential of Fantucci and Vallimont headline this year’s class, but Bonnie’s first freshman class is deep with under-the-radar talent. Michigan Miss Softball Madi Ramey and All-American track sprinter Indiana Langford bring athleticism that could provide depth across the lineup. Infielder Janelle Ilacqua will join a crowded infield with Fantucci, but also provides offensive and defensive talent that will challenge for playing time.
The class is rounded out by third baseman and pitcher Maddie Erickson. While Erickson was less touted compared to others in the class, the 0.47 ERA and .107 opponent batting average she posted in high school could translate to the next level. And given that she enters a pitching staff, that lost significant production from last season, she could find herself in the circle this season.
“We have a lot of new faces in new places,” Bonnie said. “This is a chance for us to create our own identity.”
Bonnie Tholl’s identity has always included bringing in top freshmen to the program. In her first season as head coach, those freshmen now have the opportunity to be part of her program’s new era.