For the past year, the No. 19 Michigan softball team has clamored for the return of regular season non-conference play.
But in its first chance to face top-level competition this year, things didn’t go quite as planned.
In last weekend’s Rawlings Invitational, the Wolverines managed only a 3-2 record. They picked up wins over mid-majors Illinois State and Kansas City, but the high-caliber pitching of South Florida and newly-minted No. 4 Florida was too much for Michigan’s offense to handle — limiting it to just one run across two games versus the Gators and Bulls.
“Three-and-two, still a good record, but obviously we wanted 5-0,” graduate transfer outfielder Kristina Burkhardt said. “It wasn’t like we lost hope; it’s a long season. … We’re still very confident, we know we’re a great team and we’re looking forward to show everyone what we’re made of.”
The Wolverines will quickly get a chance to bounce back in a major way at the upcoming St. Pete Clearwater Elite Invitational. With four games against ranked opponents in two days, the offense will once again be tested against elite pitching, attempting to improve on last weekend’s poor showing.
“It’s difficult when you’re facing the great pitching,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “Your success rate definitely goes down, so you can’t make too much of it. But we just need to make sure that their heads are in the right place.”
Michigan opens the invitational against No. 7 Oklahoma State — arguably its toughest matchup of the weekend. The Cowgirls currently hold a 4-1 record, boasting a win over No. 23 Arizona State and their only loss coming to No. 14 Duke. After making the Women’s College World Series last year, Oklahoma State has reloaded and is brimming with talent, including three D1 Softball preseason All-Americans.
In the second game of Friday’s doubleheader, Michigan will take on No. 24 Central Florida. The Knights enter this weekend at 4-1 already showing flashes of electricity at the plate and with a ranked win under their belt over No. 13 Georgia.
“The great teams are solid in every category — you could say solid is an understatement,” Hutchins said. “They have great pitching, they don’t just have a couple good hitters, they’re good one through nine. … And they make all the plays. They’re relentless, and they just keep coming at you.”
The Wolverines will start Saturday with a crack at last year’s WCWS runner-up, No. 5 Florida State. The Seminoles boast a 4-0 record to this point, and have a deep pitching staff led by D1 Softball preseason All-American Kathryn Sandercock. Michigan will close out the invitational against No. 21 Louisiana State, culminating a brutal four-game stretch.
“It’s good competition, that’s what we’re here for,” freshman outfielder Ellie Sieler said. “We’re still gonna approach it as just another team in uniform that we’re trying to beat. It’s definitely exciting, though, to have that good of competition early in the season.”
In any case, this weekend won’t set the outcome of the rest of the season. Even following some disappointment, an early-season tournament won’t define the rest of the year. It will, however, provide a valuable snapshot of where things stand in mid-February.
“After last Saturday, (Hutchins) said to us, ‘This is day two of 100. It’s a long season, and there’s gonna be ups and downs,’ ” Sieler said.
And though day two of 100 can’t make or break the rest of the season, with four ranked matchups in two days, it will certainly set the tone.