After a whirlwind offseason — one that featured pickup truck equipment deliveries, space-heated garage bullpen sessions and no intercollegiate fall ball — the No. 17 Michigan softball team will make its long-awaited return to action tomorrow.
The return, however, comes with its complications.
With their 2020 campaign canceled before facing a single conference opponent — or even hosting a game at Alumni Field — it has been 656 days since the Wolverines last played Big Ten softball. As Michigan travels to Leesburg, Fla. to open the season in a Big Ten conference bubble, they will deploy a largely untested and unproven roster.
Out of the 20 softball players making the journey to Florida, half of them have never played in Big Ten competition, and thus have never endured the true grind that a full-length softball season entails.
Michigan coach Carol Hutchins is particularly excited about her freshman class.
“They’re some of my hardest working kids,” Hutchins said. “They’re a pretty together group, (and) seem to have good chemistry. They haven’t been as phased as you would think.”
Hutchins is high on all her freshmen, and along with naming Keke Tholl as a potential option behind the plate, she keyed in on Sierra Kersten in Tuesday’s media availability, who had an outstanding preseason.
Also critical to the Wolverines’ success this year will be the sophomores that lack experience but exude potential, including shortstop Julia Jimenez, right hander Chandler Dennis, utility player and pitcher Lauren Esmen and outfielder Lexi Voss.
Jimenez is particularly noteworthy. She started every game as a freshman in the shortened season, and halfway through swapped positions with then junior shortstop Natalia Rodriguez, a position Rodriguez held for multiple years. As the young Michigan roster looks to find its footing in Big Ten play starting this weekend, Jimenez’s production will be a key measuring stick.
“We’ve got a lot of untested kids in terms of playing at this level,” Hutchins said. “I think the lineup is going to evolve. We’ve got to give it some looks, but we’ve got a lot of kids that I think we need to help us.”
While boasting successful high school careers, the faster pitching and stronger swings at the college level is an adjustment for any athlete.
They will look towards their tried and tested teammates — including left hander Meghan Beaubien, right hander Alex Storako, outfielders Lexie Blair and Haley Hoogenraad and second-baseman Natalia Rodriguez — to lead the way. Beaubien and Storako posted 1.52 and 2.43 ERA, respectively, last season. Blair posted a .293 batting average last season after a ballistic freshman campaign, while Hoogenraad and Rodriguez return as forces in center field and second base.
With a jam-packed schedule that seeks to make up for lost time, the Wolverines will need quality innings from more than just their co-aces, Beaubien and Storako, in order to be successful. In last year’s shortened season, pitching was not an issue for Michigan but run support was. Blair will look to spur improvement from the Wolverines’ offensive attack in the upcoming season.
“We’re going to play every game like we’re going to a national championship, or as if we can get a bid into the postseason,” Blair said. “We’re definitely just ready to play.”
In a busy opening weekend made up of double headers against Purdue, Iowa and Illinois, Michigan will look to learn what they’re made of and gain experience competing together as quickly as possible.
“They’ve got to learn to play together, they’ve got to play as a team,” Hutchins said. “Having a flow in our offensive lineup is certainly one of our biggest challenges, they’ve got to get their timing back.”
Even with the added uncertainty of the lineup, Hutchins remains confident that her team will be able to hit the ground running. With a long offseason finally coming to an end, the Wolverines will look to build confidence with each other in the heat of competition.
“I don’t look at a kid and say you’re a freshman or a senior,” Hutchins said. “I say play ball.”