On Feb. 21 of last year, fifth-year senior right-handed pitcher Sara Driesenga threw five solid innings to lead the Michigan softball team to a 13-1 victory over Oklahoma.
It turned out to be her last game of the season.
As the Wolverines chased their second national championship in Oklahoma City, Driesenga could only help her teammates from the dugout due to a rib injury.
Now, a healthy Driesenga has No. 2 Michigan (4-1) in prime position to make another deep run to the Women’s College World Series.
In four games — including two starts — Driesenga leads the Wolverines pitching staff with a 1.85 ERA and 11.1 innings pitched.
Needless to say, Driesenga loves pitching in the circle again.
“We had our fall games and it was good to get back out there,” Driesenga said. “(But) to be out there when it matters, to know that everyone is still behind me no matter what happens, it’s great.”
Driesenga and the Wolverines will look to build on their successful showing from their first weekend in Tallahassee, where they will take on Florida State and Virginia Tech in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
The Wolverines have experience playing against the Hokies, defeating them, 3-1, in the final game of last week’s USF Wilson-Demarini tournament.
Despite the previous result, though, Michigan has chosen to downplay the victory, instead focusing on how it can improve. The game was the only one that lasted the full seven innings, and the Wolverines scored just three runs, their lowest total in their four wins.
As a result, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins believes her team must play better both offensively and defensively this time around, as it may once again face Hokies right-handed pitcher Maggie Tyler, their innings-eater and No. 1 starter.
“We were definitely getting behind and swinging at her pitches,” Hutchins said. “When a pitcher is ahead, and they’re smart, they won’t give you something good to hit. So I think we can command the zone better and force (Tyler) to bring it in, that will be our strategy.”
Some Wolverines, though, believe the rematch against Virginia Tech will prove beneficial in preparing for games later in the season when the team will compete in three-game series.
“If we do see that pitcher again, a lot of us will have a game plan in mind,” said senior outfielder Olivia Richvalsky. “We will definitely be taking what we learned from the first game to get ready for Big Ten.”
In Michigan’s other two games, it will face the Seminoles, who it defeated twice last season.
The Wolverines will pay close attention to Florida State’s two Jessicas: infielder Jessica Warren, who hit 19 home runs last year and has seven RBI thus far, and redshirt junior pitcher Jessica Burroughs, who has a 1.65 ERA on the season.
In last weekend’s tournament, Michigan drew 22 walks, a testament to the team’s emphasis on patience at the plate.
“We definitely emphasize commanding the zone, (taking) what they give you,” Hutchins said. “If they give you a meatball, smack it. If they give you a ball, take it, because walks are as good as hits. We emphasize being on base, anything you can do to be on base (because) walks are equally effective.”
While Driesenga is back and injury-free, junior right-hander Megan Betsa is still ailing. She was considered questionable before last week’s slate of games but managed to pitch 10 innings and strike out 20.
Hutchins believes Betsa will play, but how much remains unclear.
“She’s improving. I expect she’ll pitch some innings,” Hutchins said. “How many will be dictated by how she’s feeling.”
But with a healthy Driesenga and a strong, patient offense, Michigan will have a good chance regardless of its ace’s health.