“Last year wasn’t very fun,” were among senior left fielder Kelly Christner’s first words to Michigan coach Carol Hutchins upon returning to Ann Arbor this fall.
And Christner’s words are understandable. The stress of sky-high expectations and the pressure to maintain success after a breakout sophomore year were noticeable in her junior campaign.
A .393 batting average fell to .313. Twenty-one home runs plunged to just six and 67 runs batted in dipped to 33. The 28 multi-hit and 18 multi-RBI games turned into just 13 and seven, respectively.
Following a stellar sophomore season that resulted in a unanimous selection to the All-Big Ten first team and a spot on the All-America third team, it was clear something had changed for Christner.
A much-needed asset for the Wolverines, Christner is now looking to revert to her sophomore self — mentally and physically — and lead No. 6 Michigan to the Women’s College World Series for the fourth time in the past five seasons. And it may have taken this offseason for her to get back to that form.
After minimal playing time as a freshman, Christner evolved into a starter her second season with little expectations and the freedom to make a name for herself. But the self-inflicted pressure after a triumphant sophomore crusade is a challenge Hutchins believes is often hard for college athletes to handle.
“It’s my philosophy — right or wrong — that when kids attain that kind of success, sometimes they don’t know how to recover from it,” Hutchins said. “You feel like, ‘I’m supposed to be hitting .400, I’m supposed to be hitting home runs, I’m supposed to be an All-American.’ And (Christner) allowed that to build into the expectations.
“She’s as talented a kid as we’ve had here. She just needs to trust her game and relax.”
Christner shared the same sentiment. She hopes that a return to her old mentality will lead to similar accomplishments that put her name on the map two years ago.
“I think this year I need to just not let any of the pressure get to me and realize that this is my last year,” Christner said. “I need to kind of just have more fun with it, not take it as seriously because it is just a game.”
This newfound perspective stemmed from the advice of Christner’s sister, Katie, who played college softball at Wisconsin from 2013 – 2016.
“She told me, ‘Nobody asked me what my batting average was my freshman year of college, but they asked me how the experience made me into a better person,’ ” Christner said. “So I think all of us have tried to focus on that, working on letting (softball) make us better people.”
Along with a changed mindset, Christner devoted the summer to focus on the mechanics of her swing that adversely affected last season’s numbers. In studying side-by-side comparisons of her plate appearances from sophomore to junior year, she found glaring differences.
Fixing what Christner said were correctable mistakes and learning to relax in the batter’s box — not getting what Hutchins described as “tight” at the plate — has already paid dividends in practices and scrimmages.
“This summer, I really worked on getting back to that swing I had sophomore year,” Christner said. “And I’ve felt good since the fall, so I’m getting excited.”
And though Christner dedicated time to herself during the offseason, she is also entering her second year as team captain and is even more determined to be an effective leader — a role she feels comes naturally.
“I think I’ve always had the kind of personality to where I’m not afraid to say things to a teammate,” Christner said. “I think I’ve gotten better at knowing how to handle each person and trying to make them the best player they can be.
“Looking up to the seniors and upperclassmen, that really showed us how to lead a team and how to be a voice on and off the field and make sure all of our heads are in the right place.”
Now with batting issues and mental worries seemingly behind her, Christner can focus her attention on the upcoming season and her last chance to bring home the championship that has been so elusive for Michigan. But with that ultimate goal comes Hutchins’ simple rule for the senior to uphold: “Just have fun.”