Though the offseason typically represents an opportunity to recover after a long and arduous season of competition, the way teams choose to spend their time off can set the tone for the upcoming season.

For the No. 2 Michigan softball team, the offseason wasn’t a time simply to sit back. Even after falling just short of a Women’s College World Series title last year, the Wolverines knew better than to assume past success is an indicator of future results. If anything, Michigan’s second-place finish instilled a source of motivation for the team to tackle its offseason workouts in order to bridge the gap between itself and the reigning national champion, No. 1 Florida.  

A key cornerstone of that regimen was the Oklahoma City Challenge.

Named for the site of the Women’s College World Series, the OKC Challenge pits four teams of Wolverines — a blue team, a maize team, a gray team and a white team — against one another in a three-day series of strength and conditioning challenges in the days leading up to Thanksgiving break.

Despite an 8-1 start to the season, Michigan’s lone loss came at the hands of the Gators, reminding the Wolverines why the OKC Challenge laid the foundation and set the pace for their offseason routine.

“The main purpose is to compete and to be challenged,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “We put them into groups so that it’s (the) team competing to beat the challenge. We made it very difficult this year — we upped the ante — and it’s something the kids really embrace and work really hard at. You’ll have to ask them how much they could move over Thanksgiving break.”

The first day consisted of four timed stations — medicine ball burpees, sandbag runs, tire flips and sled pushes — where the team that covered the most distance or completed the most repetitions won. A double-elimination tug of war tournament topped off day one.

The second day followed a similar format, with four different timed stations — hurdles and ladders, bear crawls, sled pushes, medicine ball throws and weighted barbell carries — where distance and repetitions again served as winning objectives.

The third and final day proved to be the most demanding, courtesy of a strenuous 6 a.m. obstacle course that included a sandpit crawl, a weighted sled push and pull, box jumps, bear crawls, and a weight drag and sprint, capped off by a team relay race.

Though a winning side is crowned in the OKC Challenge, the ultimate payoff isn’t about the competition itself. Rather, the challenge is designed to teach the Wolverines important lessons about perseverance and teamwork that they can apply to the season ahead.

“It’s a lot of grueling exercises to push us really hard physically and see how we react mentally,” said junior shortstop Abby Ramirez. “A lot of it is just pushing yourself to see how far you can go, and I think we all learned how strong we are if you don’t give up. You can do a lot more than you think you can.”

During the eight-month absence of games, save for a few fall exhibitions, it can be difficult to recreate the feeling of live competition between seasons. For Michigan, the OKC Challenge simulates that experience to fill the void with energy.

“It’s very effective,” said fifth-year senior right-hander Sara Driesenga. “It’s hard to find that game pressure to put on yourself when you’re just running in the conditioning sessions. So when we do competitions, that’s when we push ourselves. (That) is how we want to be out on the field, so we’re able to pull that out of nowhere when we need it.”

Though most of last year’s squad is returning, no team is exactly the same in two consecutive seasons. The offseason provides a space to create a new team dynamic, mixing and matching new and old players to form a cohesive unit. Using the OKC Challenge to its advantage, Michigan examined its strengths and weaknesses to better understand and prepare for the potential struggles inherent in its upcoming journey.

“It’s a dogfight, it’s a battle,” said senior captain and outfielder Olivia Richvalsky. “But the team aspect also makes you think about strategy, so it definitely correlates to what we would have to do on the softball field.

“You look at your team and you see who’s stronger in this area and who’s faster in this area and who you need to pair together, so the strategy that goes into it gets our competitive juices going. When it’s so physically exhausting, that’s the mental part that really comes out, and I think that’s the reason this has become such a staple.”

The title of the OKC Challenge is no accident. The intense difficulty of the challenge mirrors the onerous nature of the Wolverines’ journey to reach their ultimate destination — the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City. Despite having that main goal looming overhead, Michigan understands it won’t be a cakewalk, which explains the level of effort in its dedicated approach.

“Hutch talks a lot about one-pitch focus,” Richvalsky said. “We not only narrow down the series to the game to the inning, we narrow it down to the pitch. It’s kind of our overarching mission, and that’s what keeps us focused every day. We have an end goal in mind, but we can’t get from zero to 100. It’s a progression, so I think that’s what keeps our perspective and keeps us focused.”

After the Wolverines’ heartbreaking loss in the Women’s College World Series last season, the name of the OKC Challenge took on more meaning. Hutchins made a clear effort to push her team even harder, knowing the team would need to learn how to rely on both their teammates and themselves in order to achieve their ultimate goal.

“We didn’t lighten up in their physical training at all,” Hutchins said. “We challenged them to try to push them to their frustration level so they can learn to deal with it. It’s not about just making them feel good every day, it’s about how they respond, because when the game comes, nobody feels good unless things all go your way. We try to make practice harder than the game so that the game seems easier, and I don’t know if we accomplished that. I guess we’ll find out.”

Only one game can decide if Hutchins pushed the Wolverines hard enough: A June contest in Oklahoma City will provide her answer. 

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