Heading into the season, the No. 2 Michigan softball team had few question marks on its roster.
It knew which pitchers would be throwing fastballs from the circle. It knew who would be catching the ground balls and making double plays in the infield. And it knew the players in charge of manning the outfield grass.
It was not certain, however, who would replace the Wolverines’ departed starting catcher of the previous four years: Lauren Sweet.
Through 20 games, freshman catcher Alex Sobczak looks to have filled the void in Michigan’s veteran-heavy lineup.
In 37 at-bats, Sobczak has hit .270 with two home runs and 13 RBI, while striking out just four times.
Before the season began, Sobczak expressed concern about her potential impact, but she soon realized that high school softball and college softball are similar in many ways.
“I was worried coming in because (we face) All-American pitchers and there’s going to be such a difference — and such a change — but it’s actually just the same,” Sobczak said on Wednesday. “The pitchers throw a little bit harder and the movement is a little bit greater, but (our team) has gotten so much better as hitters — just focusing on the ball — that I don’t really notice too big of a difference.”
Where there is a clear difference, though, is in the personalities of the bubbly Sweet compared to the quiet Sobczak.
While Sweet was often vocal in the dugout, junior right-hander Megan Betsa points out that Sobczak leads in other ways.
“Alex isn’t the verbal catcher that Lauren Sweet was,” Betsa said. “She’s more of a lead-by- example type of catcher, and I think that’s good because we have a lot of vocal leaders on the field, (and it gives us) a good balance.”
Sobczak has experience behind the plate for every Michigan starter this season and thus understands the importance of forging connections with the pitchers, each of whom have different needs, strengths and weaknesses.
“I think that’s been the coolest thing so far,” Sobczak said. “Being a freshman, they don’t know you coming in, and getting to have a different relationship with Tera (Blanco), Leah (Crockett), Sara (Driesenga) and Meg (Betsa). It’s weird catching pitchers for the first time, because you (personally) have to make that relationship.”
While some players may shy away from comparisons to an esteemed player like Sweet, Sobczak embraces it. In the fall, she had the opportunity to speak with Sweet, whom she called her “role model.”
“Lauren Sweet is awesome,” Sobczak said. “I talked to her about controlling and leading the team because that’s what you do behind the plate. You’re in charge of everything, and that’s a very hard position to walk into as a freshman. You have to know every play and every person.
“She pretty much told me to relax, to own my position and embrace it … that it’s OK not to know everything at the start, just do what you know how to do.”
Another core aspect of Sobczak’s development involves visits to the circle. These conversations can be used to motivate, assist or calm down a struggling pitcher.
Sometimes, though, the pitchers themselves utilize the trips to the circle to mentor their young catcher.
While they usually initiate with the catcher coming to the mound on her own conviction, Michigan’s pitchers sometimes call the conference themselves. Betsa and Driesenga, now veterans compared to their catcher, call time and allow Sobczak to gather herself.
Sobczak now plays the catcher position regularly, which is a major difference from her experience in travel ball, where she also played third base.
That was not the only adjustment for the freshman, though. She also needed to get acquainted to more than just the speed and pace of the college game.
“You’re in front of a lot more people, and the pressure is definitely a lot more (because) you’re fighting for a national championship,” Sobczak said. “In high school and travel, you’re not playing for nearly as much. I think the fall was an adjustment for all seven of us (freshmen), but I think winter going into spring, we all got acclimated and we’re playing so many games that you’re kind of forced to adapt.”
According to Michigan coach Carol Hutchins, Sobczak has the potential to impact the team in significant aspects, but she simply needs to continue to improve and grow.
While the current Wolverines are reminded of the outgoing and confident Sweet in the dugout, Hutchins remembers a drastically different Sweet as a freshman.
“None of the kids on this team knew Sweet as a freshman,” Hutchins said. “Lauren didn’t have nearly the presence that she had by the time she was a junior and a senior, and that comes from confidence and trusting your game. And right now it’s really typical, freshmen are just trying to keep their head above water.”
Hutchins also explained that, compared to other positions, catcher proves to be the most challenging to grasp for freshmen in particular.
“(Catcher is) the biggest learning curve on the field,” Hutchins said. “There’s a lot going on, the pace of our team is extremely fast, and that information can really get into kids’ heads. (Sobczak is) going through a lot of the things that (Sweet) went through as a freshman. She’s got to be able to see the play and do the play and not let her mind get in the way. She’ll be all right.”
When Michigan travels to Louisville this weekend for its final non-conference tournament, Sobczak will look to gain more experience catching and continue improving her numbers at the plate.
After all, as a recently-named Co-Big Ten Freshman of the Week, she remains confident in herself.
“I wouldn’t be here unless I wanted to compete,” Sobczak said. “I committed here knowing I wanted to compete for a position, and I think more than anything, the pressure is why we play. If it was easy, no one would want to play.”