Megan Betsa sat in a cold tub. The television above her showed the game she had just exited.
Top 7: Missouri: 4, Michigan: 1
Her back ached from the worst pain she’d ever had from playing softball.
Her body felt the wear and tear of throwing 213 pitches in less than a 24-hour span and from pitching just about every inning all postseason.
But none of that concerned her then — her focus lay squarely on finding a way to get the Wolverines past their Super Regional matchup against the 5th-ranked Tigers to return to the Women’s College World Series. With her team down 4-1 in the seventh inning, she needed to get ready for an impending win-or-go-home third game later that day.
“I said, ‘Go get in the cold tub now, get ready for game two (of the day). Get mentally ready because we can still win this thing,’ ” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “You can’t be like ‘Oh, crap.’ We can still win it. So off she went.
“I said, ‘I’m only gonna put you (back in) if we get in the game.’ ”
Focused on heeding her coach’s advice, Betsa kept a watchful eye on the television just in case.
“And we scored one run.”
With the bases loaded, senior second baseman Sierra Romero knocks a sacrifice fly to deep right-centerfield, scoring senior outfielder Mary Sbonek. 4-2.
“And then we scored another run.”
Junior outfielder Kelly Christner ropes a line drive past the diving Tiger first baseman, scoring junior shortstop Abby Ramirez. 4-3.
“And then we scored another run, and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ ”
Senior outfielder Kelsey Susalla lines a single into centerfield, scoring senior outfielder Sierra Lawrence from third. 4-4.
“And then we scored the fourth run, so I jumped out (of the cold tub).”
A darting Christner scores on a passed ball. 5-4, Michigan leads.
As quickly as Christner raced home to take the lead, Betsa left the tub, put on her dirty socks and was back in the dugout to potentially close out the Super Regional in front of the Michigan faithful in Ann Arbor. She didn’t feel the back pain — or so she claims — nor the stress on her arm. She was going to win this game.
Unless Hutchins didn’t let her.
Hutchins and her staff gave senior right-hander Sara Driesenga the ball to open the bottom of the seventh inning. They left their ace on the bench to defrost; all she could do was watch.
The move was clearly a precaution for the ailing Betsa. If Missouri tied it up, Betsa would likely have to pitch into extra innings, with no guarantee of a win. If the Tigers took the lead and won the game, she would have to pitch seven innings or more just hours later. But Hutchins would all but admit later that not putting Betsa in at that moment was a mistake, especially as she watched Driesenga hit the first batter of the inning in the knee.
“I walked out there and I had to gauge whether Sara was nervous, or whether I should go with her,” Hutchins said. “I walked back in the dugout and I thought, for about a half a second, ‘We’re going to win this game. We’re going to put Betsa in.’ Because who’s the most confident kid? And who has the biggest heart?
“I knew that Megan was going to win the game.”
Michigan assistant coach Bonnie Tholl still remembers the return flight to Ann Arbor from Georgia.
She recalls with horror the bumps that she insists nearly led to the plane’s downfall.
She also remembers the kid who was the reason Tholl had traveled to rural Georgia on only one day’s notice in the first place. The young right-hander had the type of natural spin and ability to miss bats that Tholl, Hutchins and assistant coach Jennifer Brundage coveted — but rarely found — in high school pitchers.
“I actually thought my plane was going to crash,” Tholl said. “And I thought ‘This kid is going to commit to Michigan, have an outstanding career and I’m not going to see one inning of it.’ I actually thought that on the airplane.”
That kid was Megan Betsa. A kid from rural Georgia who had a rise-ball like they’d never seen, and the fiery mentality of a bonafide ace. A kid who left Georgia as one of the most decorated players in state history. A kid who will leave Michigan as one of the most accomplished players in the program’s rich history.
Tholl has, according to Hutchins, “a better recruiting mind than anybody in the country.” She scours every publication and website out there, searching around the country for the potential next crop of Michigan players. And ironically enough, in the case of Betsa, Tholl originally intended to scout a different player from the area.
“She had been following a kid from Georgia and she called our contact down there and asked about this particular player,” Hutchins said. “And they said ‘You know, that kid’s pretty good, but you should see this kid Megan Betsa.’ ”
A day later, Tholl was in Betsa’s hometown of McDonough, Ga. — a small town 30 miles southeast of Atlanta — scouting Betsa at her high school games.
Betsa would go on to finish her career at Union Grove High School as a four-time all-state selection, two-time Georgia state player and pitcher of the year award winner and a state champion her senior year.
Tholl has recruited hundreds of kids — some successfully, some unsuccessfully — in her 24 years at Michigan, and she remembers just about every single one of them, their year of graduation, their playing style and even their birthdays.
So when she saw Betsa pitch for that first time, she knew Betsa was unique. She knew that type of spin and strikeout ability wasn’t something commonly found in high school pitchers. Even as her plane was seemingly plummeting to the Earth, Tholl knew she wanted Betsa at Michigan.
Betsa, on the other hand, didn’t even know where Michigan was, much less harbor any deep-seated desire to play for the Wolverines.
But she wanted to learn more.
“I mostly remember thinking how astute she was, that she had really good questions,” Hutchins said. “And to this day, that’s my impression of her. She’s really aware; she’s self-aware. You can say ‘What do you need?’ ‘I need this, I need rest, I need to throw a little bit.’ Jen (Brundage) will ask her, especially the day before a game, ‘What do you want to do?’ And she knows what she wants to do.”
On her first visit to Ann Arbor to meet the team and coaching staff, Betsa asked the coaching staff for book recommendations to enhance the mental aspect of her game and help keep her emotions in check on the mound. They recommended “Zen Golf” and another book that “had to do with numbers,” Betsa recalled.
She was still a few years from stepping foot on campus as a student-athlete, but Betsa had already begun to display what the Michigan coaching staff unanimously deemed the best work ethic they’ve ever worked with.
“I just remember my very first visit, I hung out with the team, we went and got Pizza Bob’s shakes, kinda did everything that you do in Ann Arbor,” Betsa said. “I fell in love. Instantly I knew this was the place for me. … I wanted to be apart of something that had a really good culture, really big tradition, and that’s exactly what this place was.”
She was a kid from rural Georgia in Ann Arbor in the middle of January.
Against all odds, it was love at first sight.
It was December of her senior year, and Megan Betsa was ready to be unchained.
Gone were Sierra Romero, Sierra Lawrence, Haylie Wagner and the legends who had come before her.
This was her team now.
She hadn’t thrown a pitch since she gritted through six innings of one-run ball against No. 7 Florida State in the Women’s College World Series, back pain and all, only to fall 1-0.
She has never, and will never, use her back as the excuse — but Betsa (and Hutchins) knew that she couldn’t go through another postseason at a self-proclaimed “80 percent” like she had the season before. She now carried the weight of the Wolverines’ season on her right arm. They had to ensure she would be fully healthy for the wealth of innings she would inevitably throw this year — but more importantly, she had to be healthy for the postseason. There was only one way to do that.
So Betsa took the entire fall season off, not throwing a single pitch from June until December, mentoring junior right-hander Tera Blanco and sophomore right-hander Leah Crockett in the process.
“We needed her to be ready for this part of the year. That’s the only way we could almost guarantee it,” Hutchins said at the beginning of the season. “She is one driven kid, you gotta hold the reins on her.”
Those reins, as it turned out, were only confined to pitching. Instead of resting on her laurels, the pitcher who had already compiled 546.1 career innings pitched, 789 strikeouts and a 1.92 earned-run average asked a simple question few with her pedigree would dare to posit: How can I get better?
So she went to work, doing everything she could short of throwing a softball. She worked to refine her spin, despite her natural ability that Brundage calls “the best spin of any pitcher Michigan has ever had.”
She also worked to include two more pitches — a curveball and drop-ball — more often in her pitching repetoire. Doing so, she hoped, would counteract teams that tried to gameplan for just the riseball/changeup mix that she had traditionally used.
The work paid off: Betsa’s unpredictability has baffled opposing batters, with teams less capable of game-planning for the riseball alone. This season, Betsa has compiled 91 strikeouts looking — tops in the Big Ten by 51 — because of her ability to mix all four pitches.
With Michigan set to kick off its postseason run Friday afternoon, Betsa’s health remains as strong as it’s been in years. And in Betsa’s case, being healthy bred confidence — perhaps a confidence level she never knew she could reach.
“I just feel confident,” Betsa said after a midseason shutout of Northwestern. “I think that’s something I’ve said I’ve had in the past, but I dont really know based on how I’m actually feeling right now. I don’t know if I’ve ever actually had this type of confidence going into games. Like, I really don’t think people can score many runs off of me, and when runners get on base, it’s my plate, and I don’t want them to touch the plate.
“That’s just my mentality.”
It’s the confidence that comes with throwing a no-hitter, then saying after the game, “I actually didn’t feel as good today as I have felt in previous games.”
It’s the confidence to win games on her own, even when the offense isn’t producing.
It’s that confidence that gives Michigan a chance this postseason, when it otherwise likely wouldn’t have one.
It’s the confidence that defines an ace.
And it’s the confidence that has endeared her to Hutchins over the years. Hutchins — now finishing up her 33rd season as the head coach at Michigan — has coached hundreds of players at this point, plenty of whom have been competitive. But she’s adamant that she’s never coached a player like Betsa.
In a midweek tilt this season against Michigan State, Betsa found herself in a jam after walking two runners to bring the tying run to the plate with a 4-1 lead in the fifth inning. Hutchins knew what Betsa needed, trotting out to the circle to talk to her pitcher. Keeping the chat light, Hutchins complained to Betsa about the lack of a walk-out song, neglecting to discuss the situation at hand in the game.
Like a light only Hutchins could turn on — a wavelength on which just the two of them can communicate — Betsa struck out the next two hitters, escaping the jam en route to a victory.
“I come from a family of six kids,” Hutchins said. “My mother treated us all like we were all her favorite, but she would never tell us who was the favorite. That way we could all know, now that she’s no longer with us we’re her favorite.
“You know what I'm saying?”
At some point in the next four weeks, Megan Betsa will throw her final collegiate pitch.
When she does, Betsa will finish with 100+ career wins, 750+ innings, 1100+ strikeouts and an ERA well below two. She will finish with three unanimous first team All-Big Ten selections and, more importantly from her perspective, vie for a third straight appearance in the Women’s College World Series in the coming weeks. And with 82 more strikeouts, Betsa would pass Jennie Ritter for the most strikeouts in a season from a Michigan pitcher.
These are all statistics that will immediately cement Betsa in the pantheon of great Michigan softball pitchers in recent decades.
Jennie Ritter. Jordan Taylor. Sara Griffin. Haylie Wagner. Kelly Kovach. Megan Betsa.
But right now, as the May sun shines into the state-of-the-art Michigan softball facility, a smiling Megan Betsa isn’t focused on records she could gain or players she could surpass on some hypothetical list.
You can’t go five minutes without somebody asking her about her health (The answer? “I feel really good right now.”), but that doesn’t faze her either.
She knows last year’s team might have won the national championship with her at full health, and, at the risk of stating the obvious, she desperately wants that chance again.
Four years of working hard, massages after games, constant injury treatment, game-planning with the coaching staff, motivational books, persistent work on her already-elite spin, Pizza Bob’s milkshakes, expansion of her pitching arsenal, near plane crashes and cold tubs have led to this moment.
Megan Betsa’s legacy is written into Michigan lore.
But there’s still one chapter left.