Last Friday night, Northwestern outfielder Sabrina Rabin stepped up to the plate against fifth-year senior right-handed pitcher Sara Driesenga. She had showed bunt in almost every other pitch of her at-bat.
Throughout the weekend, whenever Rabin faced pitchers from the No. 2 Michigan softball team, the Wolverines’ defense was ready for the constant slap-hitter.
As the series continued, the Wolverines were always prepared to throw her out on defense, whether it be on a bunt or on a routine groundout.
If the Michigan pitcher fell behind in the count, senior second baseman Sierra Romero would rush over and tell her a joke to make her laugh. If the pitcher forced the batter to swing and miss, sophomore Tera Blanco would cheer on her pitcher from first base throughout the series.
This can be attributed to the constant communication enforced by Michigan coach Carol Hutchins during her team’s practices. In the days preceding their games, the Wolverines spend time being loud and vocal in workouts.
“I don’t want to be quiet,” said junior third baseman Lindsay Montemarano. “If you’re focusing on someone else during workouts, it seems less difficult. I don’t know who hears me, — sometimes I hear other people, sometimes I don’t. If you pick up on that one positive thing, it’s great.”
In their games, the Wolverines speak to each other about who will cover first on certain plays and when to shift the infield on a bunt. In their drills, Michigan’s players focus on other members of the team in order to inspire confidence in each other.
“We like to stay loud,” Montemarano said. “We want to be the loudest on the field because I think that contributes to your play. The louder you are, it shows confidence and gets everyone excited.”
Hutchins emphasizes this constant conversation during practice in an effort to boost Michigan’s spirits during games. When the Wolverines sit in the dugout cheering on their fielders, they create an enthusiastic atmosphere to motivate the defense. Sometimes, they even tell jokes to loosen each other up.
This communication on the field allows Michigan’s defensive players to have an easier time fielding, as they know that their teammates are encouraging them from the sideline.
“It inspires confidence when we’re yelling what base to throw to,” Hutchins said on Sunday. “The whole team lights up and says ‘2-2-2.’ ”
Though these conversations primarily take place among the infielders, communication between outfielders is just as essential. They speak about the game plan, cheer on the team’s pitchers and go over their cut-off player in the infield.
The exchanges, while often brief, prove instrumental during the course of a game and are not solely about strategy.
“We talk about if there’s any sun in the gaps,” said senior right fielder Kelsey Susalla. “(It’s) a good way to let loose and relax. Knowing that you said it, someone else will be able to contribute that (tip) to the game.”
For pitchers, the in-game discussions provide necessary calmness and confidence to ease tension.
Montemarano believes that when she keeps both her energy and her pitcher’s energy up, it will lead to greater momentum.
For the pitchers themselves, the simple conversation gives them much-needed trust during a possibly chaotic inning. They gain confidence if they have the support of other players behind them.
“(Blanco) is constantly talking, calming us down, whether we’re up or we’re down. She’s right there behind us every time,” Driesenga said. “Romo (has come) up to me a few times and said we need you, we got you.”
Romero, Michigan’s offensive leader, serves as a motivator for her teammates as well. She is constantly giving tips and talking strategy to her fellow infielders or providing humor for her pitchers.
“When the pitchers have issues, when they struggle, when you can see their confidence waning, it’s really important for Romero to go over there because she has more swag than anybody on the planet,” Hutchins said. “(She) helps them understand that we got this for you, (the offense) is going to score you 11 runs.”
During the game, the family-like atmosphere created by Hutchins and the other veterans on the team becomes apparent. Many of the players have played with each other for three or four years thus far in their careers. Over that amount of time, significant bonds are formed.
As the Wolverines continue Big Ten play, look for more conversations in the circle, discussions during warm-ups and even dialogue on the outfield grass during Michigan’s games. These players know each other and enjoy conversing with each other.
“They trust each other like sisters, it’s a sisterhood,” Hutchins said. “Their communication with each other is very valuable to (us coaches). Their ability to be sisters on and off the field is important to our success.”