One thing defined Michigan softball this past weekend: experience. Both the accumulation and lack of it determined the Wolverines’ fate.
To start, two of the more experienced players on the team — left-hander Meghan Beaubien and right-hander Alex Storako — had a shining six-game slate. The senior and junior, respectively, showed exactly why they are Michigan’s go-to pitchers.
Beaubien came out on Friday in the Wolverines’ first game of the season with 19 strikeouts to tie Jennie Ritter for the most by a Michigan pitcher in a single game. Storako followed Beaubien with a dominant outing of her own, tallying 16 strikeouts, eventually ending the weekend with a 0.36 ERA.
Experienced players reigned supreme on the offensive side as well. Junior outfielder Lexie Blair had a strong weekend, notching a team-leading five RBI and six runs on just seven hits. Blair has returned to the leadoff position after a slow start last season had her falling back in the lineup. She appeared comfortable and calm in the box.
“Compared to last year, my mental game, I just had to update a little bit,” Blair said last Tuesday. “I definitely sink a little low when I get in my head too much. A quote that I remember from way before I even came to (Michigan coach Carol Hutchins) is, ‘if you’re thinking, you’re stinking,’ so I kind of just run that through my mind and just probably have a clear head.”
So far, it seems as if Blair has wrapped her head around whatever was plaguing her at-bats early last season and learned from those experiences.
Besides Blair, other seasoned hitters that excelled included seniors Lou Allan and Taylor Bump. The pair combined for 11 hits on 33 at-bats and six RBI.
The success of the team’s veterans presents a caveat, though. With the 2020 season cut short due to the pandemic, freshmen and sophomores alike lack the experience and playing time they would typically have by now.
“The game doesn’t know if you’re a freshman or a senior,” Hutchins said.
This past weekend, it seemed like it did. Sophomore right-hander Chandler Dennis was a perfect example on Saturday. Coming in for Storako in the final inning against Iowa, Dennis walked three batters and accounted for four earned runs, almost costing the Wolverines their 6-1 lead.
The sophomore only notched seven innings last season, much less than she would have in a normal freshman year. Dennis was practically a first-year pitcher entering the throes of a tough Hawkeye lineup, and put simply, she wasn’t ready.
Freshman second baseman Sierra Kersten had a few more bright spots than Dennis, racking up eight putouts in the field and two doubles on 4-of-19 from the plate. Kersten showed promise, but her numbers didn’t exactly leap off the page. Going forward, though, Kersten has the potential to prove herself a valuable asset to the Wolverines.
“Sierra Kersten has had an outstanding preseason for us and really I think came into her own a little bit,” Hutchins said before this weekend’s games. “The freshmen can often be a bit timid or deer in headlights, and she had a little bit of that but started to play some ball for us. So we’re pretty excited about that.”
Catcher Keke Tholl, another freshman, was stout as a backstop, if mediocre as a hitter. Her one hit in four at-bats wasn’t detrimental but didn’t have much of a positive impact either. With junior catcher Hannah Carson having a rough weekend at the plate, the inexperienced Tholl wasn’t the answer the Wolverines needed.
With a whole two classes lacking proper college game-time, Michigan is going to have to find a way to get them up to speed. And with this season’s format of jumping straight into Big Ten play, it’s going to have to do it quickly.
Hutchins, at least, has faith in the underclassmen to make the change.
“They’re some of my hardest working kids,” Hutchins said. “I like the culture of the freshmen because when I walk in that gym early, they’re the ones in there early working on their game, and I think that bodes well for them.”