The catcher position was a big question mark for the No. 2 Michigan softball team this season. Lauren Sweet, who excelled at the position for the previous four years, graduated last spring, leaving a hole at her spot in the lineup and behind the plate.
Freshman Alex Sobczak, a highly-touted recruit, began the season in the starting lineup, hitting seventh and developing a rapport with junior right-hander Megan Betsa and fifth-year senior right-hander Sara Driesenga.
Sobczak struggled at times on defense, though, having difficulties throwing out runners attempting to steal and blocking the ball behind the plate. These problems became especially apparent in a game against then-No. 11 Washington. She had two passed balls, the first of which tied the game and another in the final inning that set up the would-be winning run.
Michigan coach Carol Hutchins elected to start sophomore Aidan Falk at the backstop as the season reached its midpoint. Falk had played nine games at catcher her freshman year and thus had some experience with Betsa and the other pitchers, even putting in extra work with Betsa over the summer.
“Not that Alex doesn’t do a great job behind the plate,” Betsa said in April. “But some people just work better with other people, and I think that (Falk and I) click really well.”
And so as Michigan entered the bulk of conference play, Falk took over the reins from Sobczak and became the consistent starter. She even earned a spot on the All-NFCA Great Lakes third-team for her performance this season.
Offensively, Falk thrived. Heading into Saturday’s game, she was hitting .293 with six home runs and 39 RBI. Behind the plate, though, she too struggled to throw runners out, catching just three of a total of 16 runners. Against speedy teams, this proved to be a problem.
No. 17 Missouri, a team with prolific base stealers at the top of its lineup, swiped two bags in its two games against the Wolverines. But Michigan’s high-octane offense was able to salvage two wins despite Falk’s struggles at holding the runners.
The Wolverines could not do the same, though, against third-seeded Oklahoma. The Sooners stole five bases on Saturday, which tied a Women’s College World Series single-game record. Falk at least attempted to throw out some of the runners advancing to second. But one of those attempts bounced off of Oklahoma third baseman Sydney Romero’s leg as Romero slid into second, scoring Oklahoma first baseman Shay Knighten.
“I think our game plan was to push the envelope a little bit and really try to be aggressive and make (Michigan) make plays,” said Sooner coach Patty Gasso. “We wanted to set that tone, but we’ve been doing it all year, and it’s been pretty effective.”
And Oklahoma’s assertiveness on the basepaths paid off, as it jumped out to an early lead and held on for a 7-5 victory.
But it wasn’t all bad for Falk. Offensively, she was responsible for Michigan’s first two runs, driving an 0-1 pitch over the right field wall to cut the Sooners’ lead to two. Falk added another RBI on a single during Michigan’s failed comeback attempt in the seventh.
“I was just looking for a strike, and I had Hutch in my head saying, ‘See the ball,’ so I saw the ball,” Falk said of her home run.
Falk’s team-leading three-RBI effort wasn’t enough, with early defensive mistakes hurting the Wolverines.
They will look to bounce back against Florida State, another speedy team. The Seminoles led the Atlantic Coast Conference this season with 144 stolen bases, including 48 by outfielder Morgan Klaevemann.