Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The essence of the American dream is chasing those ideals, as well as creating success and opportunity through hard work and dedication. So for the Wolverines, they were living the dream.
On Saturday’s matchup against Ohio State, the No. 14 Michigan softball team celebrated its senior day with a 8-0 win in six innings. After a blunder-filled game Friday, the Wolverines eased their doubts by fixing all the the wrong things and keeping all the right.
“You always want to beat Ohio State, especially on Senior Weekend,” said senior designated player Taylor Swearingen. “It’s the cherry on top. And winning the Big Ten Championship, it’s like a dream come true right now.”
However, a rivalry win, a dominant display and a Big Ten title don’t just fall from the sky. None of those things came easy. And as early as the opening inning, that was evident.
After creating some momentum with a quick three-up-three-down inning at the top of the first, the team saw its offensive struggles return with three outs on four at-bats — including two groundouts and a pop out. With the three outs coming in rapid succession, silence was ushered throughout the crowd and dugout.
A positive that came from the inning was second baseman Faith Canfield returning to form. The senior hit a single to left field, attempting to find a groove to offset her recent batting struggles. Canfield then came away with a steal — upping her confidence.
However, it would take more than just a single and a steal to rile up the dwindling spirits around Alumni Fields.
Another three-and-out top of the inning brought some noise around the stadium, but it still teetered between the edge of snoozing and erupting — just looking for the extra push to tip the balance.
That push came at the bottom of the second inning.
With bases loaded, sophomore outfielder Haley Hoogenraad broke open the scoring — and the silence — with a fielder’s choice play that brought the stadium back to life.
The run was set up by junior catcher Katie Alexander’s walk. Senior outfielder Aidan Falk drove a fly ball down centerfield that enabled them to advance a base before being joined by Swearingen to load the bases. Swearingen’s patience at the plate allowed her to fight back from a 0-2 count to eventually get the free base with a walk.
“You know our first run kind of came on kind of a blue pit, and don’t get me wrong, those are great because we’re swinging,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins.
“And you know, our whole group broke through a bit because I saw more, I mean, Aidan had a well-hit ball. So we’re just trying to score runs and it was really big to get out and get a lot of runs. We really needed that.”
The exuberance in the dugout and in the stands showed just how much it was needed. After Friday’s game where runs came at a premium, the early signs of a potent offense was much appreciated. And it didn’t end with one run.
Freshman Natalia Rodriguez hit a line drive to second base that advanced everyone but Hoogenraad who was subsequently tagged out on her way to second. With runners on the corners, Canfield looked prime to inject even more life back into the stadium. Hitting a single down right field, she sprinted to first, pleased to expand the lead even if it was just by one. But a mishandle by the Buckeye outfielder allowed Canfield to continue on her path and end at third — a two-RBI hit.
From that point on, the Wolverines had all the freedom at the plate that they wanted.
Junior outfielder Natalie Peters stood firm at the plate, waiting for her pitch. But it never came. She watched three go by without biting on any for a 3-0 count. The next pitch she chose to swing, but she had the liberty to do so even though it resulted in a strike. The pressure wasn’t on her. It was on the Ohio State pitcher who was facing a runner in scoring position with a three-ball count during the at-bat.
What was the result? Peters was walked in the next pitch — restraining her swing on the high ball.
Senior first baseman Tera Blanco followed suit during the very next at-bat. Sensing the thin ice the pitcher was walking on, she took a chance on the off-speed pitch but was called for a strike. However, the liberty at the plate came to her just as it had Peters. Four consecutive balls came, and she made her way to first for loaded bases. Now in a defensive free fall, the Buckeyes changed pitcher in hopes of a more promising outcome.
But it was the same story for the Wolverines. Sophomore third baseman Madison Uden knew the strike zone and waited for the pitch to enter. Instead, she came out of her at-bat seeing four straight balls, upping the lead by one.
“Yeah, I think we were just trying to command our zone a little bit better today,” Swearingen said. “And that actually helped us, and I mean, we took advantage of the free bases, and we got timely hits that way.”
Ohio State stopped the bleeding with a strikeout on Alexander to end the inning and close a threatening situation.
Whereas the Michigan batters had liberties at the plate, the Buckeye batters had none.
Another three-up, three-down inning forced Ohio State off the field and gave the Wolverines an ample opportunity to widen the gap. It was all part of the game plan.
“I think more than anything with our offense, you look at up at (Michigan State) the other day, we ended up with eight runs,” Hutchins said. “We kind of chipped away every inning. And taking walks was huge. We took a lot of bases. And if they’re going to give us bases, we need to take them. We need to not be walking back to the dugout after ball four.”
In many situations, a walk or two can be made up for with stellar defense. But with the unforgiving lineup for Michigan, every mistake mattered. So when Swearingen was once again walked — another four-pitch walk — Hoogenraad promptly capitalized. With knees bent and stance tightened, she hit a no-doubt home run into the branches of the trees behind left field.
“I don’t know if anything I saw to any of them really matters,” Hutchins said, “but I said I’d like them to swing more like Haley Hoogenraad, because Haley’s got a big ole swing.”
The Wolverines ended the inning after two outs by Rodriguez and Canfield on a bunt attempt and a groundout, but the team did its damage.
Pushing for a response, the Buckeyes failed to deliver — though giving a viable scare at the top of the 4th. After a groundout by the leadoff batter, Ohio States’ Lilli Piper — their most potent offensive player who had hit a home run the game prior — hit a double down line in left field. A fielder’s choice sent her to third, and hope emerged that the team could put one on the board. But Uden put the crowd at ease with a groundout.
It wasn’t until a full inning later that another scoring chance emerged, but this time, for Michigan. Swearingen saw another free base as she was walked through four pitches at the bottom of the fifth. Sophomore designated player Abby Skvarce — substituting for Rodriguez — was hit by pitch before being replaced at first back by Rodriguez.
The spotlight fell to Canfield to put an early end to the game. After three balls and a foul for a count in her favor, the junior saw Hutchins urge her on to swing hard.
“She hit the ball way better today,” Hutchins said. “She did. She swung harder. She swung through it. I said you can’t be afraid to miss. It’s ok if you miss. I’d rather have you swing well and miss than just make contact and be out.”
Getting full contact on the swing, the ball was sent down centerfield and to the wall. The runners made a mad dash to home where Swearingen easily saw home plate. However, Rodriguez froze at third despite further urgings by Hutchins to continue. The moment of hesitation looked costly as Rodriguez bit the bullet and made her way to home plate even though the catcher looked prime to garner the ball in time. But with her speed, the freshman hustled near the batter’s box before diving to the dirt — her hand safely on the plate just as the catcher bent over to tag.
It was ironic. The freshman tagging home to secure the seniors a Big Ten championship on their senior day, effectively accepting the torch being passed down. In a rush of happiness, the dugout emptied, as the players inundated the field to accept their title.
This was supposed to be just a stop in the long race. After all, the Wolverines have their eyes on the finish line — a College World Series title — but in the moment, they were living the dream.