EAST LANSING — Just a month and a half ago, the Michigan softball team found itself in unfamiliar territory.
Sitting at 1-4 in Big Ten play, the Wolverines trailed in the conference, and they found themselves in an early hole — but not one they felt was insurmountable.
“We’re in the boat we’re in, and we’re only going to get out of it by beating other teams,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said in early April. “But we can’t try too hard. We can’t make it more than it is. We can’t try to play the standings. We are clearly the underdog in my opinion. And we have to wear it well.”
From that point forward, Michigan used Hutchins’ outline to turn around its season. The Wolverines methodically improved and by the end of the season, they seemed to have found their footing as the bats finally broke through in the season’s final series. They didn’t jump to the top of standings, but instead slowly trended upward — setting up a high stakes Big Ten Tournament matchup with Maryland.
A loss would mean a crushing end to their conference momentum, and a victory would keep them alive for at least another day.
On Thursday night, No. 23 Michigan (35-15 overall, 15-8 Big Ten) didn’t just survive the Terrapins (29-23, 14-9) — it crushed them.
A fourth straight dominant performance at the plate by the Wolverines’ bats and a stellar start from senior right hander Alex Storako paving the way to a convincing 7-0 victory.
“I think we came out with a lot of fire,” Storako said. “We came out here and really laid the hammer down. Awesome start for our offense, and a great start to the postseason.”
The action in Thursday night’s game began early when Maryland threatened in the first inning. With runners on second and third and only one out, Storako defused the threat by forcing two straight flyouts.
In the bottom half of the inning, Michigan wasted no time in putting runs on the board. Following a double from Graduate senior first baseman Lexie Blair that put her and graduate outfielder Kristina Burkhardt in scoring position, the two capitalized off of a throwing error on a grounder to give the Wolverines a two run advantage.
The second inning passed uneventfully with both teams going down 1-2-3, but in the bottom of the third, Michigan came out strong.
Burkhardt once again kicked off the action, this time with a deep triple that just eluded the glove of a diving Terrapins center fielder. She was brought home by a groundout, giving the Wolverines a three run lead.
Despite the bases being empty with two outs, their offensive production continued, jump started by a double from senior catcher Hannah Carson. Fifth-year third baseman Taylor Bump took to the batter’s box next and after just missing on a ball that flew over the wall but just foul, she once again made hard contact. It once again flew over the fence, but this time it was fair. Her two run shot gave the Wolverines a huge momentum boost and added two to their score.
“I got the one I wanted and I made sure I didn’t miss it,” Bump said.
Once again, the bases were cleared with two outs. And for the second time in the inning, Michigan rallied. Graduate second baseman Melina Livingston singled, freshman outfielder Ellie Sieler walked and freshman utility player Annabelle Widra brought both home with a triple to right to cap off a five-run inning.
Michigan’s batters came up clutch time and time again to shift the game from a 2-0 tightly contested bout, to a 7-0 rout. It would stay that way for the rest of the evening.
“All season we’ve had pressure on us,” Storako said. “And being able to perform with that pressure has really hardened us.”
After an action-packed inning, things quieted down for the rest of the game. The bats cooled down and Storako continued her dominance in the circle, allowing just one hit in her final two innings. before being relieved to rest her arm.
But even with the relative tranquility that followed, the Wolverines made a statement.
In their series earlier this year, Maryland played Michigan tough, taking it to the rubber match. That wasn’t the case on Thursday. The Wolverines kept their win streak alive in a dominant fashion, and punched their ticket to a rematch with Northwestern in the semifinals on Friday.
“I think we’re a better ball club then we were then,” Hutchins said. “ … It’s always an exciting time to play Northwestern, and I have no problem thinking our kids are gonna be great. But we’re gonna have to play good ball.”
After losing the season series to Northwestern in early April, Michigan looks for a different outcome on Friday — and this time, it’s with the stakes as high as they can be.