EVANSTON — The No. 23 Michigan softball team was on a skid of historic proportions.
Heading into the back end of a doubleheader against No. 9 Northwestern on Sunday, the Wolverines were 0-4 in Big Ten play, a record that they had not experienced since 1991.
But it wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Michigan not only returned both of its senior aces and key bats for the season, but also picked up two key transfers in the portal. These seniors and transfers, who were expected to carry the load heading into the grind of Big Ten play, have so far been unable to do so.
On Sunday, though, these players finally performed to their capabilities on their way to a convincing victory over the Wildcats — their first in Big Ten play.
The top of Michigan’s batting order is dominated by upperclassmen.
With typical leadoff senior outfielder Lexie Blair out with an undisclosed injury, graduate transfer outfielder Kristina Burkhardt has been moved to the leadoff spot. And other than freshman outfielder Ellie Sieler, who was a recent addition to the starting lineup, the rest of the first five batters are solely seniors and graduate transfers.
While these experienced players have anchored the Wolverines at some points during the season, they have not led the way Michigan coach Carol Hutchins would like them to.
“I need the upperclassmen to give us hope,” Hutchins said after a game against Miami University. “They need to lead the team.”
And on Sunday, they did just that.
Graduate transfer Kristina Burkhardt hit a standup double into center field on the very first at-bat of the game. After a flyout and a groundout that advanced Burkhardt to third, graduate utility player Melina Livingston hit a hard drive into center to score Burkhardt. Another drive into the outfield, this time by senior third baseman Taylor Bump, scored Livisnton and gave Michigan an early 2-0 lead.
Bump exemplified the importance of an experienced presence. Bump was vocal all game, and seemed to infuse the entire team with a newfound passion. She made several clutch plays in the field, including a diving catch on a popup bunt, and directed the infielders to their spots with a poise that can only be found with years of experience.
Bump had been struggling in the batter’s box this season. After a productive 2021 season in which she was one of the main offensive threats and batted .325, her production has fallen off a proverbial cliff. She is batting .206 this season, and has looked lost at the plate for long stretches of time.
Her resurgence could be crucial to the Wolverines’ success later in the season, and this game could have been a turning point.
Later in the game, Northwestern cut the lead to one. In both of the previous games against the Wildcats, Michigan was unable to quell late scoring runs. But this time, it was successful.
In the seventh, Sieler kicked off proceedings with a double into the gap. Livingston followed up with a deep single to score Sieler. Multiple following hits piled up the score for the Wolverines in a way they hadn’t previously been able to against Big Ten competition. This explosion of runs gave Michigan a six-run cushion and a lead that Northwestern would be unable to erase.
“I told the upperclassmen to start taking ownership of this team and I think they did,” Hutchins said.
On Sunday, the Wolverines were able to beat a top ten team on the road, and in convincing fashion. One game does not make a season, though.
This was Michigan at its best. And if it seeks to make something of this season, it needs to repeat this type of performance, and often.