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If you have a conversation with any member of the Michigan softball team this year, it won’t take long for “process-oriented” to come out of their mouth. One of the program’s most cherished mantras, this phrase dictates a focus on long-term performance over getting bogged down in the stakes of an individual opponent or situation. 

“I think (Hutch) is really trying to get us to get away from the fear of outcome and just be process oriented is what she always comes back to,” sophomore utility player Hannah Carson said following this year’s spring break trip. “Just letting yourself be like, ‘alright, well if I miss that one, then I still have two more swings.’ You get three strikes for a reason.”

But this week is potentially a major crossroads, so those stakes are now much harder to tone down.

Last Wednesday, the Wolverines trotted onto Alumni Field with their season picking up steam. Their win the previous day marked their sixth straight, their star co-aces were dealing in the circle and veterans were beginning to build upon a long-awaited trend of plate production. Two days later, they retreated from the dugout after a stunning mid-major loss to Miami, a winless Big Ten record after getting swept by Nebraska, and their first regular season three-game losing streak at Alumni Field since 1992. 

Now, the only thing separating a reeling Michigan from its first road trip of the season — the long-awaited series with growing Big Ten threat, No. 11 Northwestern — is Tuesday’s one-off matchup with Bowling Green. The process, once operating quietly and effectively in the background, will now be scrutinized. 

“This team — they’re passionate,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “And sometimes your passion is smothered, whether you’re fearful, whether you’re afraid of disappointing people, whether you’re afraid of not living up to your expectations … We have high standards, but expectations are something out there. It’s in your head, it’s pressure you put on yourself.”

On the surface, Bowling Green doesn’t seem like a threat to Michigan. Nor should it be. While last week’s drubbing at the hands of a Mid-American team will haunt any subsequent meetings with the conference, the Miami Redhawks at least lead that pack. The Falcons, on the other hand, are in the MAC’s basement.

The issue is that the Wolverines’ recent challenges have little to do with the team in the opposing dugout. Pitching collapses and miscues sparked these past losses defensively, and offensive inconsistency has done the rest.

“You see (drops in performance) every year, I am most concerned not because we lose, but where’s our kids and where’s their confidence,” Hutchins said. “That’s what concerns me more than anything, and right now their confidence is very low.”

Next week’s matchup in Evanston represents a significantly greater challenge than those that Michigan has faced of late.

This is why Tuesday’s matchup against Bowling Green holds more weight than most out-of-conference midweek bouts — the one last bit of breathing room before Evanston to find that confidence.

Timidity is the theme that laces many of the Wolverines’ issues together. Infielders overcomplicating routine plays, too many pitches across the plate, and taking too many strikes — that all comes from the head, and something has to be done to get it out of there.

“If I knew what it was, I’d push that button every day,” Hutchins said after the Miami loss. “But this game is a choice, nobody’s making them play. We need to look at everything as an opportunity, and honestly get the burden off of us that we’re supposed to be: you fill in the blank. You gotta play for it. We need to get grittier.” 

And with a much tougher schedule approaching, it’s clear that Michigan needs to find that grit quickly.