With a 4-2 loss to Washington in the Regional round, the Michigan softball team bowed out of the NCAA Tournament, and thus waved goodbye to the 2017 season. It was, at times, a season and team unable to escape the shadow of the 2016 juggernaut; a year in which “tight” might well have been Michigan coach Carol Hutchins’ most used word. The loss to Washington marked the earliest exit for the program since 2011. But in a year that will likely be seen as a “down” year for the program that has been to 12 Women’s College World Series, the Wolverines were still ranked the entire season, were comfortably the second best team in the conference and finished 43-13-1.
The Daily looks back on a season seemingly brimming with potential, but ultimately plagued by inconsistency.
Most valuable player: Megan Betsa
This award undoubtedly belongs to the pitcher who led the country in strikeouts, and was a model of stability all year, even when the offense wasn’t. Coming off lingering injuries that forced her to sit out of fall training, senior right-hander Megan Betsa came through with the best season of her decorated career. Betsa had career bests across the board, including innings pitched (235.1), batting average against (.148) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.12). With newfound confidence, Betsa especially found her groove in the Big Ten portion of the schedule, including a streak of 48 consecutive scoreless innings in the heart of conference play en route to unanimously being voted first-team all-Big Ten. In mid-March, she threw two no-hitters in the span of one week, prompting Hutchins to say that Betsa was “really been the best I’ve seen her in her career over this period.”
Betsa pitched in 23 games this season that her team failed to score more than four runs. She still won or saved 13 of them. The senior was a stabilizing force all year — the glue that kept her team from unraveling when it appeared imminent, making her the unquestionable MVP.
Breakout Player: Faith Canfield
Honorable mentions: Natalie Peters, Katie Alexander
It was hardly surprising to see sophomore second baseman Faith Canfield come through with a home run in the first inning of the elimination game against Washington; she’s been hitting the ball hard all season. Canfield was appointed the starting second baseman early in the season, with massive shoes to fill on the heels of Sierra Romero’s graduation. Romero might well be the best Michigan softball player in history, and while Canfield may never reach that level, she proved herself a worthy heir to Romero’s throne, consistenly producing all season long.
Canfield’s breakout year truly became evident when she began to flash newfound power. Coming off a year in which she had seven extra-base knocks all year, Canfield tied junior first baseman Aidan Falk for the team lead in that category in 2017 with 27. With a steady glove and rock-solid bat, Canfield was one of just two Wolverines to start all 57 games for Michigan this season — a testament to Hutchins’ confidence in her. Canfield will continue to be a reliable middle-of-the-order bat in the years to come, and is an early candidate for 2018 Big Ten Player of the Year.
Most important game: Michigan State 5, Michigan 4 in Big Ten Tournament
It wasn’t nearly the “most important game” that the Wolverines were hoping for, but it certainly was the moment where Michigan’s season began to spiral out of control — a moment the players simply couldn’t bounce back from. After crawling back on their own home field to grab a 4-2 lead in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals, Betsa allowed the Spartans to score three unanswered runs. Michigan State centerfielder Lea Foerster reached base four times on the day, including a crucial RBI single in the top of the seventh inning.
It’s hard to overstate how much this loss stung for the Wolverines; in a tournament circled on their calendar all year in front of their home fans, they lost to an in-state rival before even reaching the semifinal. The loss eliminated any hope of returning home for a Regional at Alumni Field. Instead, Michigan fell outside the top-16 and was forced to travel to Seattle, with the faint — and ultimately misguided — hope of upending the host Washington.
Michigan will lose one of the most accomplished senior classes in school history, perhaps no loss with more implications than that of Betsa. The Wolverines will count on senior right-hander Tera Blanco in both the circle and the lineup as the new face of the program, with senior Aidan Falk also figuring to be a vital middle-of-the-order bat. But the core of this team will likely be the rising junior class — led by Canfield, Peters and Alexander. The trio alone accounted for 157 hits in 2017. Rising sophomore shortstop Madison Uden flashed potential in her 24 appearances this season, carving out a role that made her a regular starter by season’s end.
For the first time in years, the team will come into the season with questions throughout the pitching rotation. Blanco appears capable of taking the step toward becoming an ace, but rising sophomore right-hander Leah Crockett pitched just 6.1 innings in 2017. The coaching staff is optimistic about incoming freshman left-hander Megan Beaubien, who comes in as the No. 6 overall prospect in the 2017 recruiting class, according to FloSoftball. But it’s fair to question whether Hutchins and her coaching staff will immediately rely upon the incoming freshman for 120+ innings out of the gate. Michigan looks poised to juggle a three-person rotation, at least in the early portion of the season.
Overall, it will be a talented, if comparatively unproven, team coming into the year. It won’t have the same burden of the shadow of expectation that this team seemed to fall victim to all too often. Quite a bit hinges on Blanco and Beaubien being able to fill the void left by Betsa, and whether Canfield, Peters and Uden can take steps to become the superstars they have shown signs of becoming. The Wolverines will likely remain as a preseason top-15 team, granted the benefit of the doubt that Hutchins’ teams have earned throughout her illustrious career.