A full weekend well-saturated with quality matchups and a variety of outcomes made for quite the roller coaster. For the No. 19 Michigan softball team, this has been a weekly occurrence throughout its season’s first month.
On one hand, the Wolverines have added some offensive breakthroughs to their consistent pitching prowess. This past weekend, fifth-year outfielder Kristina Burkhardt’s ball contact was joined by freshman infielder Ella McVey and other newer faces. This combined with the pair of senior right-hander Alex Storako and freshman right-hander Lauren Derkowski on the mound, who held solid lineups to three runs, resulting in wins over No. 24 UCF and No. 21 LSU.
On the other, the lack of contribution to the scoresheet from the heralded returners is the reason why Michigan only went .500. Senior outfielder Lexie Blair and fifth-year infielder Taylor Bump have combined for just one run on the scoreboard this season, batted in or otherwise — scored on a wild pitch in the dirt.
The result of this paradigm is a laser-thin line to walk. It’s impossible not to feel the pressure as opportunities to build a resume of quality wins start to slip by, but equally unreasonable to panic when a team that has just begun seeing softball weather isn’t all there yet.
“Urgency and panic are definitely two different things, and we’re not in a panic,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “We’d like to be winning more games than we are, but we’re playing a really tough schedule. As a coach, you want to see us get better and more competitive, and I feel we did this past weekend.”
Considering the Wolverines’ destination this past weekend, “competitive” gets well-deserved emphasis.
The St. Pete Clearwater Elite Invitational is arguably the premier televised early-season event on the sport’s schedule. Michigan shared the diamond with four ranked teams — two of which in the top ten — and sent the message that while it didn’t always win, it could compete.
“We got tested, you know, took a couple of losses,” fifth-year left hander Meghan Beaubien said. “But I think even just looking at how we performed as a team and our mental game and our approaches on Friday versus Saturday, we improved so much just even between those two days. So I think going down there and facing that out of conference competition is already making us better and is only going to continue to do that.”
But with the Wolverines locked into a World-Series-or-bust mentality, moral victories can only take up so much time. The program in its experience, however, doesn’t so easily forget the possible downside of faster starts.
“Every season is different,” Hutchins said. “I’ve seen some of my teams come out of the gate hitting the heck out of the ball, only to peter out at some point.”
At the same time, even with that experience it is hard to make such a quick judgement of a team’s identity.
The team has fared about as expected for its preseason No. 12 ranking, but it hasn’t stolen a single game from the three top-ten teams it has played.
Michigan’s bouts against top competition will continue. The No. 13 Duke Blue Devils host the next tournament on the schedule, with North Carolina and Kentucky just behind before this season’s first pitch at Alumni Field arrives.
But the Wolverines try to never get caught up in those details, they entered this season knowing it wouldn’t be a cakewalk. Instead, they embrace and attack the difficulty of juggling the early-season growing pains while still trying to compete.
“We’re definitely not hitting the heck out of the ball,” Hutchins said. “So we strive for it every day in practice, trying to get them on a good path and a good mindset, And I think our mindset is improving which will improve everything else.
“The minute you start making it about the opponent or focusing on the opponent, you’re not focused.”