After 32 seasons as the coach of the Michigan softball team, Carol Hutchins knows the trials and tribulations that come with being an underclassman in college softball — especially for those who are asked to contribute early in their careers.
Gone are the days of second baseman Sierra Romero, outfielder Sierra Lawrence and the rest of one of the most accomplished senior classes in school history. And the onus to fill that void may have to fall on the shoulders of the underclassmen on the roster.
“The game doesn’t know if you’re a freshman or a senior,” Hutchins said. “When you get the opportunity to be out there, you need to be ready to go, and not ‘Oh, I’m a freshman.’ To push everyone everyday, period — that’s what we want our freshmen to do.”
The Wolverines lost three of the top four hitters in their lineup from last season — Romero, Lawrence and outfielder Kelsey Susalla — all to graduation. Between them, Michigan is losing 41 home runs, 179 RBI and 195 runs scored. The trio accounted for 42 percent of the total runs scored by last season’s prolific offense, which finished second in the country in offense at 7.90 runs per game.
Granted, it’s unfair to expect any three individuals to step in and match that type of production, especially for the untested players who Hutchins expects to be thrown into the fire early.
Sophomore Faith Canfield, who Hutchins dubbed “the leading candidate” to play second base, will likely have the unenviable task of replacing Romero. Freshmen under Hutchins tend to play sparingly, but last season Canfield was an exception to the norm, carving out a role as a utility player. She appeared in 44 out of 59 games, managing a .268 batting average and scoring 22 runs. Those are hardly eye-popping numbers by traditional standards, but certainly commendable for a freshman on a senior-laden team.
Lawrence and Susalla will be equally difficult to replace in their corner outfield spots. Perhaps nobody knows that better than senior outfielder Kelly Christner, who spent the last two seasons manning the outfield with the duo.
“Between me, Sierra and Kelsey, we kind of knew how each other worked,” Christner said. “We kind of vibed really well. We worked together really well for two straight years, so it is hard to work with different people.”
But as a senior leader, Christner knows it is incumbent on her to try and emulate that chemistry, even if it takes the form of a different identity. She recognizes the inherent challenge of working with — and leading — new players.
“I think (the challenge is) more just letting the girls know that are going to be playing now how we work out there, and really focusing on communication between the three of us,” Christner said. “I think this fall we’ve worked really well together, and I’m excited to get out there.”
One of those new outfielders will almost undoubtedly be sophomore Natalie Peters, who Hutchins spoke glowingly of in her season-opening media day.
Despite little experience, Peters — whose game is predicated on contact and speed — will be counted on toward the top of the order. In just 16 at-bats last season, Peters managed a .313 batting average, with all five of her hits being singles. In an expanded role, Peters will be counted on heavily to set the table at the top part of the order.
“She came back a new woman from freshman to sophomore year,” Hutchins said. “And she had some good experience last year, but she’s been a very consistent player for us since she got back in the fall.”
The other outfield spot seems less certain, but it, too, will likely be manned by a younger player. Only one other outfielder on the roster is older than a sophomore.
But while Hutchins knows she’ll need production from some unproven players, that dependence hardly seems to concern her.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen with the unseasoned players, but we need some of the unseasoned players to step up,” Hutchins said. “The pleasant part of the job is somebody does step up usually.”
And if history is any indication, that unknown boost could be expected to come from one of the sophomores. Under Hutchins, the freshman-to-sophomore transition traditionally comes with the biggest statistical leap.
Christner’s production ballooned during her sophomore season: increasing her average by 94 points, hitting 18 more home runs and knocking in 50 more runs than the year prior. Blanco slugged 312 points better during her sophomore season. Even Romero saw her average increase 112 points from her freshman to sophomore campaign. And the list could go on.
With the heart of the order gone from last season, the pressure will undoubtedly be on the entire team to step up its production to try to make up for those losses. Yet for the Wolverines, the better question may not be if someone will step up, but rather who.