Before facing Michigan State in its home opener, No. 22 Michigan softball had business to take care of. Scrubbing pads and sweeping dugouts, the Wolverines made sure Alumni Field looked its best before they hosted their in-state rivals. For the team, it boiled down to pride.
“When you walk in the dugout in an opponent’s field and it’s really spit shine, you know they’re a proud program,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins told reporters on Tuesday. “We always need to be proud.”
For junior catcher Hannah Carson, putting the field together mirrored the way the team would prepare for the game. It may have been the first home game in 695 days, but that didn’t mean Michigan should treat it differently.
Even if the Wolverines don’t consciously treat home games differently, their performance goes beyond the normal expectations of a normal home team advantage. In 2019, the Wolverines batted .379 in regular season home games. In those 19 games, only four visitors eclipsed two runs, and seven couldn’t even score. In Michigan’s 39 away and neutral-location games that same season, opponents scored three or more runs 15 times, and only nine went scoreless.
Taking pride in the field isn’t just because it’s the Wolverines’ home. Rather, it’s a byproduct of Michigan’s dominance in Ann Arbor. Since 2017, the Wolverines have lost just five games played on Alumni Field. Two of those came at the hands of James Madison University when Michigan hosted a 2019 NCAA Regional. The Wolverines’ longest home losing streak checks in at just four games, and it dates all the way back to 1991. Michigan does more than protect its house. It defends it tooth and nail.
Putting statistics aside, there’s something different about the Wolverines when they play at Alumni Field. It’s more than just a friendly environment — it’s Michigan’s world. That pride puts the Wolverines in another gear.
Some of that pride might come from the rarity of home games. Michigan weather makes softball games almost impossible — even dangerous — until around mid-March. By that time, teams in the south and west have been hosting games for more than a month. When weekend road games send the Wolverines across the country every weekend, playing at Alumni Field is more than simply a homecoming. Even then, Michigan only gets around a third of its games at home. All of this makes home games a little more special.
It’d be remiss to ignore the facility itself, too. With upgrades over time, the Wilpon Complex that holds Alumni Field has become one of the finest venues, not only in the Big Ten, but in college softball at large. While there won’t be any fans in the stands this year, playing games at home still brings familiarity that lets the Wolverines breathe.
“Maybe we won’t have the attendance numbers that we’ve had in previous seasons, but there is that excitement about an opponent coming to our house,” associate head coach Bonnie Tholl told reporters on Mar. 30. “There’s a sense of just comfort knowing that this is where we put our skills every single day.”
It goes without saying that home games feature some of Michigan’s finest moments. Playing on a historic field adds something extra to the Wolverines’ game.
If Alumni Field could talk, it’d tell you about the time pitcher Jennie Ritter set a program record by striking out 19 Oklahoma batters back in 2006. It’d tell you about the Wolverines’ longest game ever earlier that same season, an 18-inning comeback classic against Central Michigan that was ended by a two-run walk-off from captain Stephanie Bercaw. It’d tell you about every ball three-time All-American Sierra Romero sent over the outfield wall.
When Michigan played on Wednesday, its players added themselves to that history. Coaches, players and fans will remember senior outfielder Haley Hoogenraad’s inside-the-park home run that gave the Wolverines the lead. They’ll remember that, despite a pause forcing Michigan to push back its opening day, the Wolverines’ pride came to play.
With a four-game homestand against Maryland this weekend, Michigan will write more of 2021’s chapter. And no matter the outcome, it’s likely that it will play with an added edge.