Through the first two weeks of the Michigan softball team’s 2015 campaign, senior right-hander Sara Driesenga stood out among the three-headed monster that was the Wolverines’ pitching rotation. The co-captain got off to a 4-0 start with a dazzling 0.78 earned-run average. Boosted by Driesenga’s quick start, Michigan started the season with an 8-1 record.
But her dominance was short-lived. While the Wolverines continued to succeed throughout the remainder of the year, Driesenga suffered a season-ending rib injury in the third week of the season. Suddenly, her senior year as one of the best right-handers in the Big Ten was over and her collegiate softball career was in jeopardy.
“At first we thought (I would be unable to play for) a week or two,” Driesenga said. “Then I would be good to go. But after the MRI, it showed that it was fractured. I worked hard to come back all season, but the pain was still there in the rib.”
Even though Michigan’s co-captain didn’t return to the circle, the rest of the pitching staff — since-graduated left-hander Haylie Wagner and then-junior right-hander Megan Betsa — excelled in Driesenga’s absence. Their success could be partly accredited to Driesenga’s advice and encouragement in practice and in the dugout during games.
“As a captain, I wasn’t just trying to help (the pitchers), but the whole team,” Driesenga said. “We always had that pitching time, but when I couldn’t be the one to pitch during that time, I wanted whoever was out there to do their best so we could be successful.”
Now healed from the injury, Driesenga will have another chance to help the Wolverines next season. Although she graduated last semester, Driesenga was given a medical hardship for last season, giving her another year of eligibility to compete in Michigan’s 2015-2016 campaign while pursuing her master's degree in social work.
“We first knew that (returning) was an option after the season was over when (the medical exemption) got approved,” Driesenga said. “There was no question in my mind that I wanted to come back. I did all this hard work to keep developing myself and to keep helping the program as much as I can.”
Driesenga’s return to the team will once again cement the Wolverine pitching staff as one of the best in the country. Michigan boasted a 1.66 ERA last season, good for fifth in the nation. While Wagner graduated and will be missed, Betsa is ready to cement her place as one of the elite pitchers in the nation. Sophomore first baseman Tera Blanco may see some time in the circle for the Wolverines, and Leah Crockett — an incoming freshman and two-time all-state selection from New York — is in the mix for a spot in the rotation as well.
The pitching staff could include two to four pitchers, depending on how well Blanco and Crockett perform in the offseason, and on how coach Carol Hutchins’ strategy develops throughout the season. No matter how it shakes out, Driesenga will provide leadership, experience and pitching prowess to a team coming off a national runner-up run.
“(Hutchins is) definitely excited,” Driesenga said. “She’s publicized that, she’s said it to me. I think it’s an advantage when me and (senior second baseman Sierra Romero) were captains last year, and we’ll keep working hard and keep developing as much as we can. I think Hutch is excited about that as well.”
Added Hutchins in an interview with MGoBlue.com: “Last year's curse is this year's blessing. … She's a great pitcher, and she's going to be great asset to Team 39.”
With one year left to finish what she started last season, Driesenga hopes to pass on her wisdom to her teammates, saying she could probably write a book about the subject. She wants her teammates to enjoy their time as Wolverines because, as she knows, it flies by.
“I think it’s all about perspective while you’re here,” Driesenga said. “(For me) it’s like, ‘I get to do this another year! I get this opportunity to stay at this great university and be a part of something that is so much bigger than myself.’ … It’s an opportunity that not a lot of people get.”
Driesenga will relish the chance to play for Michigan again, hoping to be an integral part of another World Series run. If the Wolverines are fortunate enough to get back to the WCWS next season, she could be the missing piece of the puzzle for Michigan to capture the title.