Backed by an explosive batting lineup and a lethal pitching staff, the No. 2 Michigan softball team enjoyed a magical run to the Women’s College World Series last season.
And though the Wolverines graduated All-American pitcher Haylie Wagner, this year’s pitching staff has the potential to be just as good, if not better.
All-American and 2015 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Megan Betsa is poised to anchor the staff.
The junior went 31-5 with a 1.72 ERA last year, and she believes that her big year, along with the experience of pitching in the WCWS, was a big part of her growth and development.
“Megan had a great year for us,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “She’s come into her own as one of the greats.”
Now, she looks to add to an already impressive career.
“We’ve talked a lot about not having expectations,” Betsa said. “Just because I was an All-American doesn’t mean I need to try any harder. I need to focus on my preparation, and realizing that my spin is what makes me good.”
Betsa has become more of a leader as well. She is now an upperclassman with two full years of pitching experience under her belt, and has tried to pass on some of her wisdom to her pitching counterparts.
“(Freshman right-hander Leah Crockett) has been working really hard on developing her mental game as much as her physical game,” Betsa said. “She has a lot of questions, and I’ve tried to take her under my wing because I was in a similar situation — I had to work on my mechanics and get stronger mentally. I’ll be able to help her out and get a head start on that.”
Betsa isn’t the only experienced pitcher on the roster, however.
Fifth-year senior Sara Driesenga has pitched extensively for the Wolverines over her career, and was 4-0 with a 0.78 ERA in 2015 before missing the rest of the season because of a rib injury.
“She didn’t hesitate to come back as a fifth-year,” Hutchins said. “She wanted to be here and to have her senior year. We’re very fortunate. It was a blessing in disguise, because she beefs up our staff and she can help us be great.”
Driesenga has had a long hiatus from pitching, but Hutchins believes she can continue to get back in the groove of things as the season gets underway.
“She still isn’t in the form I feel she’s capable of,” Hutchins said. “But she’s come a long way, and pitching in games is what’s going to help her get there.”
In addition to the two upperclassmen, younger pitchers will push for playing time.
Sophomore right-hander Tera Blanco was a ballyhooed high school recruit, ranked as the No. 1 softball recruit in the Orange County region, and started most games at first base her freshman season.
Hutchins now looks to her to bolster the pitching staff.
“I told her at the end of the season that we need her to pitch,” Hutchins said. “She’s improved a lot, worked really hard and stayed here in the summer. She couldn’t train with us (because of NCAA rules), but she trained with our strength and conditioning coach and worked with one of our local pitching coaches.
“The big thing with Tera is she is a gamer. She is going to get a lot better when she gets the chance to get on the mound and I do expect you’ll see her.”
And while Hutchins thinks Blanco is ready for an expanded pitching role, she believes that Crockett needs more seasoning before taking a rotation spot.
“If I had my best wish, I’d like (Crockett) not to pitch and to continue getting better,” Hutchins said. “She comes to us raw and physically strong.”
How the pitching staff shakes out is currently unknown to Hutchins. Just like seasons before, she thinks it will continue to evolve as the season plays out.
However, she is sure of one thing, and that is how large of a role the pitchers will play in her team’s push for a national championship.
“(Betsa) can’t do it by herself,” Hutchins said. “We need a pitching staff. To me, how our pitching staff evolves is the key to our season.”