This weekend, the No. 12 Michigan softball team is heading south to play a five game stretch at the University of South Florida Rawlings Invitational. The tournament marks the reemergence of many things for the Wolverines.
It’s a season debut, a return of non-conference competition and the sense of normalcy that comes with it and the first opportunity for the team’s newcomers to demonstrate what they add to the team.
With so many storylines swirling around the Wolverines, it’s easy to lose sight of what this tournament really is: a warmup. Both literally and figuratively.
For the next five weeks, Michigan will travel south each week, to play in four tournaments and an individual game against North Carolina while the state of Michigan thaws out. As the Wolverines head to warmer climates to begin their season, their goals will be twofold — to return to regular season form, and have strong showings against SEC teams, the results of which will heavily impact their RPI ranking.
At USF, they’ll have the opportunity to do both.
Michigan’s weekend begins early on Friday as it faces off against University of Missouri-Kansas City. The Wolverines will face the Kangaroos twice, in their first and last games of the tournament. Against Kansas City, the competition doesn’t appear to be too stiff.
The Kangaroos are by all means a respectable mid-major team, ranked second in the preseason Summit league coaches poll. Yet, they’ll likely struggle to keep up with tougher, ranked competition.
While the Wolverines will enter the matchup rightfully favored, they can’t let their guard down. Last year Kansas City was able to earn a major ranked win over No. 6 Oklahoma State.
One player Michigan will have to tame to prevent an upset from happening is Kangaroos outfielder Kloe Hilbrenner. Hilbrenner is Kansas City’s best hitter and ended last season with a .354 batting average. But how often she gets on base only tells half of the story, as Hilbrenner finished last season with 45 stolen bases, enough for third most in Division I. Still, if the Wolverines come to play, and their star pitching duo doesn’t collapse, they should be able to start and end the tournament on the right note.
A mere two and a half hours after its matchup with the Kangaroos, Michigan will face off in their second matchup against Illinois State. Against the Redbirds, the storyline is much of the same. The Wolverines will face a mediocre mid-major team looking to play spoilers against tougher competition. Again, if the Wolverines don’t collapse, they’ll be in prime position, ready for their first real test.
On Saturday, they will get that test. In fact, Saturday’s matchup with No. 6 Florida looks to be one of the toughest games the Wolverines will play for the first month of the season. Matchups against teams like the Gators are exactly what the Wolverines lacked last year, and a large part of what kept their RPI ranking so low.
Florida is a typical tournament contender, is highly ranked and has depth — all of which will be apparent on Saturday. The Gators boast a unanimous All-American in third baseman Charla Echols and an All-SEC pitcher in Elizabeth Hightower. Hightower will likely start against Michigan, as the Wolverines are the only other ranked team at the tournament. The game is the tournament’s truest tossup, and if Michigan can win, it will be a true indicator of the Wolverine’s talent.
“We don’t get to have practice games, we practice against each other, and every game counts,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “That can be tough, but it is what it is. We’ll coach every game to win it, I can tell you that.”
Finally, Michigan will play USF on Saturday directly following the Florida result. The Bulls are another mid-major team and have lost two of their best players from last season. Yet, they should bring a little bit more firepower than either Kansas City or Illinois State. Immediately following an important result against Florida, the matchup will be a test of the Wolverines’ resiliency, for better or worse.
Overall, this weekend’s tournament will be a good gauge of where Michigan is.
“We’re ready to play some competition besides ourselves and our own pitchers,” Hutchins said. “You get to a point in your practices that you really just need to go on the field and compete against opponents to grow. And then we’ll see where we’re at and where we need to go.”