It didn’t seem real until Aidan Falk’s lazy pop out landed in the mitt of Michigan State third baseman Kaitlyn Eveland.
It didn’t seem possible that, after recording that final out, the Spartans — who beat Michigan for the first time since 2009 Friday — and their fans would rightfully celebrate like they’d won the College World Series in front of a sold-out Alumni Field.
It was real, of course — a program-altering win for Michigan State at the expense of a Wolverines loss that will be easily buried deep into the depth of their expansive history. It’ll sting for Hutchins and her players, but won’t leave even a blemish on the storied history of the Wolverine softball program.
“A loss is like a death,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “You have to grieve, you have to work through it.”
This was no fluke. The Wolverines were outplayed on their home field, and the Spartans were hungry and ready to make a statement.
Bridgette Rainey, the Spartans’ winning pitcher, walked into the press room, sat down and took a second to catch her breath. She then summed up the evening better than any of us could:
But maybe we shouldn’t have been all that surprised. Maybe Michigan losing stunningly in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament wasn’t all that stunning, because maybe this Michigan team just isn’t that good.
To be clear, a 41-11-1 record is good, in any sport under any circumstances. The Wolverines had six all-Big Ten honorees, a pitcher who will go down as one of the best to ever don the maize and blue and four seniors who started all four years and contributed massively to two Women’s College World Series teams. This is a very good softball team.
But this is what happens when the standard is set higher than everyone else, when “that good” is defined differently than for most everyone else. When you’re Michigan softball, it’s unacceptable to lose in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament, especially to an in-state rival, and two teary-eyed players at the media stand agreed wholeheartedly with that sentiment.
“At the end of the day, this is an extremely tough loss,” said an emotional senior third baseman Lindsay Montemarano. “We set higher expectations for ourselves.”
In reality, this team has proven uncharacteristically vulnerable all season long. The best team — and only ranked team — the Wolverines beat all year is Arizona State (twice), who has since fallen to No. 22 in the rankings and plummeted to a disappointing 9-14 conference record. They lost on the road to a dreadful Maryland team (4-19 Big Ten, 11-39-1 overall) and quite nearly dropped two of three. They lost on the road at Ohio State, and went 0-6-1 against ranked opponents who weren’t the Sun Devils.
They came into the year having lost 47 percent of their run production from a year ago, and predictably struggled out of the gate. They lost seven of their first 22 games of the season, scuffling through the most difficult stretch of their season. But it was early.
By the end of the season we had been tricked into the narrative of a resurgence. They were hitting their stride at the right time! Peaking when you most wanted to peak! Eighty-eight runs in nine games! Nine wins in a row! Michigan softball was back!
Instead, they had beaten up on the likes of Rutgers — scoring 45 runs in three games against the Big Ten bottom-dweller — and were the same volatile lineup, highly susceptible to the ebb and flow of the season’s tides.
Deep down, that optimism was rooted in the generations of Michigan teams that came before this one.
This is what happens in college sports, with turnover so frequent. Lessened success is only a natural byproduct of losing talent, leadership and production the caliber of Sierra Romero, Sierra Lawrence, Kelsey Susalla, Sara Driesenga, etc. But at Michigan, with this program, you’re never expected to rebuild, only to reload.
That unrecognizable silence after the final out at Alumni Field Friday was cultivated through years, decades of unfettered victory. Those tears that permeated the team are a product of a refined, tedious culture of winning.
Because that’s what happens when you win so often; losing hurts that much more.
This season is by no means over. They will practice Sunday and find out their regional fate Sunday night. And as long as this team is coached by Carol Hutchins, Bonnie Tholl and Jen Brundage, it will have a chance.
But this Michigan softball team fell victim to its own historical program success, and it now has just a week to salvage something from a season wrought with disappointment.