As the No. 2 Michigan softball team prepares to open its season this weekend, it faces a challenge in blending the old with the new. While the Wolverines retain the majority of their Women’s College World Series runner-up squad from last year, they must overcome the loss of two key pieces of their starting infield — catcher Lauren Sweet and first baseman Tera Blanco.
Though Blanco is still a member of the team, she will be transitioning to her preferred position at pitcher in her sophomore season, leaving the starting spot at first up for grabs. Though question marks abound in regard to who will claim the position, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins faces no shortage of options to fill the void.
“Well, you’ve got (sophomore infielder) Aidan Falk who works over there,” Hutchins said. “And really, (freshman utility player) Faith Canfield is somebody that’s very valuable. She is the most prepared to play this level out of really anybody on this team, and we’ve been looking at her. So, I expect execution level to determine that.”
Sweet, on the other hand, graduated last spring. After serving as a security blanket for the Wolverines as a four-year starter, Michigan faces a tall order in replacing her leadership and productivity behind the plate.
Eager to find her heir apparent, the Wolverines took to the recruiting trail with purpose. Scouring the state for high-quality talent, Michigan found freshmen catchers Alex Sobczak and Katie Alexander, from Farmington and Ypsilanti, respectively.
“There’s a lot to be said for being a freshman and being a catcher,” Hutchins said. “It’s one of the toughest learning curves there is. (Sobczak) is ahead of where Sweet was at this time (in her career), but she’s now going to need the game experience to get better. I expect there to be a learning curve, which means maybe some gray hairs for me at times … we have to let her grow.
“And a really pleasant surprise has been Katie Alexander, who I originally recruited to be a bullpen catcher. But she’s much better than a bullpen catcher, and she’s going to have some time for us and give us some depth there.”
Despite the transitions at first and catcher, the left side of the infield remains relatively solid for the Wolverines, due in large part to the return of All-American and 2015 inaugural espnW Softball Player of the Year Sierra Romero, a senior second baseman.
Romero has been nearly unstoppable throughout her college career, but last season, she took her dominance to a whole new level. With a .449 batting average, 22 home runs, 83 RBIs, a .909 slugging percentage and an OBP of .601 on the season, Romero played a pivotal role in guiding the Wolverines in their journey to the WCWS.
Alongside her at third and short are juniors Lindsay Montemarano and Abby Ramirez, respectively. Ramirez, in particular, enjoyed a breakout sophomore campaign, providing some extra firepower for Michigan from the No. 9 spot in the lineup with a .371 batting average and 24 RBIs.
Together, Romero and Ramirez make a formidable duo on defense, combining at second and short to great effect. That should come as no surprise, given that both have experience playing each other’s position at a high level. Romero played at short and Ramirez played at second before they flipped positions, which explains their harmonious relationship on the field.
“Oh, we’re awesome,” Romero said. “She knows my range so well and I know her range so well; we just complement each other. And we joke about it all the time, that we made some really cool plays. We know what each other is thinking. It’s nice because we both know what areas are hard to make plays at. When she has a backhand throw and good spin on the ball, I know where the ball is probably going to go. We read each other and feed off each other very well.”
The stable presence of veteran leadership between the two and Montemarano will undoubtedly help ease the adjustment process at first and catcher. The experience of playing together for an extended period of time strengthens the infield unit as a whole despite the roster turnover.
“It helps a lot because in this sport, communication is key, especially when all hell breaks loose and the ball is going the other way and you need to just calm down and talk,” Romero said. “I think we do a really good job with that, and now we’re putting our new freshmen in and they’re kind of getting the hang of it. Having all those returners really helps make the whole transition a lot easier.”
The infield will rely on these returners to bridge the gap between the old and the new, and if they do, Michigan can expect its recent run of success to continue.