Carol Hutchins said it better than anybody: “This team has been a little bit of up and a little bit of down.”
The Wolverines head into home play with a 12-10 record, something that the Michigan coach, her players and the softball community at large aren’t accustomed to experiencing — nor could’ve predicted given the program’s precedent of dominance.
The team has weaknesses: namely, finding starters at first base and pitcher, hitting consistently and closing out tight games. But so does every team, as Hutchins said after practice Tuesday. This season still marked a change from the program’s typical preeminence, and the problem isn’t how players hold a bat or field a fly ball.
Michigan has a few choices to make. To focus or worry about their legacy. To hope for results or get them. To swing with authority or think too much.
For so many years, Michigan held a mental acuity that allowed it to reach a pinnacle of excellence as a program, and this year has tested that focus. In game after game, players have pointed to mental struggles as the root cause of awry pitches, problems hitting and general strife on the field. The Wolverines know their problem. And while repeated mental lapses have certainly created new obstacles, they also present a new opportunity.
This is the first team the program has seen in years to face a recurring issue affecting performance. Sure, that’s not ideal, but it also sets the stage for greatness.
This team could be the one to face adversity and attack it. The Wolverines can show up at the plate, be ‘on’ mentally and perform at the level at which we know they’re capable from big wins against ranked opponents. They’ve identified the problem — now they just have to solve it.
To truly get to the root of the problem, though, Michigan has to look at why it keeps falling into mental lulls in the first place. The sixth inning of the Stanford game, the first game in the LSU Invitational in Baton Rouge, La., provided a potential answer. After a strong start with a tied score of 1-1, sophomore left-hander Meghan Beaubien stepped in to relieve freshman right-hander Alex Storako in the circle. Beaubien let up four runs before Hutchins pulled her from the lineup mid-inning.
“You want to go into that situation with a clear head and just telling yourself to throw your game and that it’s going to work out,” Beaubien said. “What you don’t want to do is try too hard to get out of a situation or to get the results you wanted, and that’s what I was doing. I was trying too hard to get the results I wanted, and that leads to bad pitches.”
Like Beaubien, several players have found that after one discouragement, it becomes harder to avoid result-oriented play — trying to force an outcome and forgetting to play freely. And when one player falls into that mentality, it can affect the entire team.
But in the same way that panic spreads quickly, so too does a revived team atmosphere.
“It’s a contagious effect,” Hutchins said. “When a couple of us (hit well), we’ve opened up. We did it against Arizona State. …When we’ve scored runs, it’s because we’ve only had to get a couple things going and then everybody takes the pressure off themselves.”
The Wolverines understand why they can beat No. 2 UCLA and almost defeat No. 9 Louisiana State yet lose to unranked Louisville, North Carolina and the Cardinal. They’ve encountered mental setbacks, and they now have the chance to change their mentality at home, proving resilience in the face of a rocky start. With comfortable winning records in the scorebooks the past 14 years, this is the first time in a long time Michigan has needed that spark. And the Wolverines have the chance to create that hungry mentality for themselves.
A major turning point in finding that rhythm also occurred in Baton Rouge, just four games after the loss to Stanford. Playing a tough Tigers team with a home-field advantage, Michigan held strong defensively, eventually losing 2-1, but playing with a passion and ease they lacked in previous contests.
“They’ve learned it at LSU, and they didn’t get the win, but they played to win it, and we played like that in California every game,” Hutchins said. “The jungle tiger doesn’t go in there and wonder or worry or hope he gets his prey. He goes in there to get it, or else he’s not going to eat.”
Two weeks ago, the program stood at a crux: carry on the success of the program or drop the ball, sliding into the team’s first losing season since recordkeeping began 14 years ago. Ten games later, the Wolverines remain on that precarious edge.
Michigan managed to claw its way back to a winning record. But to really cement themselves as the team that continued the success of a legendary program in the face of adversity, Team 42 can’t just be “a little bit of up.” The team needs sustained ferocity, and the players know that.
And with the Wolverines returning to Ann Arbor this weekend, it’s time to see if they can survive in the jungle.