BLOOMINGTON — In 2016, heads hung low as the Michigan softball team walked off the field after falling to Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament final.
The top-seeded Wolverines held three separate leads throughout the game, but the Golden Gophers outlasted them in a 10-inning thriller.
That was the last time the two teams squared off. That is, until Saturday’s Big Ten Tournament final, when Michigan captured the championship with a 3-2 victory. With the win, the Wolverines secured their 10th tournament championship in program history — their first since 2015.
Since pulling off the upset in the the 2016 tournament final, Minnesota hadn’t dropped a game in the conference tournament. The Golden Gophers entered this season as the three-time defending tournament champion, preventing the Wolverines’ current senior class from ever hoisting the trophy.
On Saturday afternoon, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins tasked her ace with ending the streak. Despite having pitched all seven innings of the Wolverines’ semifinal win over Wisconsin on Saturday, sophomore left-hander Meghan Beaubien embraced the challenge.
Unfazed by Minnesota’s conference-best 67 home runs, she tallied four strikeouts across five innings of work while battling both the Golden Gophers and the fatigue of throwing 15.2 innings in two days.
“(Beaubien) has been huge,” said junior third baseman Madison Uden. “She’s always an incredible contributor to us. She’s such an important aspect to this team. She pitched a hell of a weekend, so kudos to her for that. I couldn’t have asked anything more of Meghan.”
This year’s installment of the championship game remained scoreless until the fourth inning. With senior centerfielder Natalie Peters perched on second base, Uden laced an RBI double into the left-center field gap.
“I was looking to drive the ball and she pitched it outside,” Uden said. “I knew we were going to score but I knew we needed bases. I was just looking to hit the ball really hard and it went into the gap.”
When senior catcher Katie Alexander opened the fifth inning with a double, Minneota turned right-hander Amber Fiser, who was named the 2019 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year on Wednesday. Hutchins countered by sending sophomore first baseman Lou Allan to the plate as a pinch hitter.
Just two pitches into the at-bat, Allan lifted one to deep left field. The ball ricocheted off the top half of the wall, allowing Allan to pull into second base with a stand-up double. Alexander easily trotted home, doubling the Wolverines’ lead in the process. Two batters later, Peters plated Michigan’s third run with a fielder’s choice up the middle.
That was all the run support Beaubien needed.
A noticeable drizzle began falling when the Wolverines came up to bat in the top of the sixth, but that didn’t stop Fiser from recording a strikeout and groundout. But after walking senior designated player Kenzie Nemitz, the drizzle became a downpour. Moments later, a 22-minute rain delay began, giving the Golden Gophers an opportunity to regroup in the locker room.
Coming out of the delay, Minnesota bounced back emphatically. Fiser promptly retired Alexander to close the top half of the inning and first baseman Hope Brandner led off the bottom of the sixth with an opposite-field home run. After working two runners into scoring position, Beaubien was replaced by freshman right-hander Alex Storako before recording a sixth-inning out.
The rookie rose to the occasion. After surrendering a sacrifice fly that trimmed Michigan’s lead to one, Storako recorded a strikeout and induced a fly out to end the threat. Somehow, some way, the Wolverines escaped the sixth inning with a lead.
Following a leadoff double from freshman pinch hitter Morgan Overaitis in the top of the seventh frame, a Peters bloop single gave Michigan runners on the corners with two outs. Freshman left fielder Lexie Blair — a first team All-Big Ten selection and NFCA Freshman of the Year finalist — stepped into the batter’s box with a chance to tack an insurance run onto the Wolverines’ lead.
She rolled over an inside pitch and grounded out to first base, but it didn’t matter. Storako shut the door on the Golden Gophers’ seventh-inning comeback bid, sealing Michigan’s championship.
After a 12-10 start, the Wolverines will enter next week’s NCAA Regional having won 31 of their last 32.
“We’ve worked so hard the entire season from struggling in the beginning to finding ourselves as a team and what we’re about,” Blair said. “… Everyone has a role, and any role has a huge impact to us. We stick to those roles and we’re really present in them.”