For the third time in the last four years, the Michigan softball team reached the Women’s College World Series. Though the Wolverines did not win a championship, Michigan has much to be proud of in an expectations-filled season. Senior second baseman Sierra Romero cemented herself as the greatest hitter in Wolverine history — perhaps one of the top players of all time — junior right-hander Megan Betsa earned Big Ten pitcher of the year and Michigan coach Carol Hutchins set the record for most NCAA wins by a head coach.
The Daily looks at the highlights, gives out awards and recaps the other top moments of the 2016 softball season.
Most Valuable Player: Sierra Romero
Through her first three seasons, Romero was the Wolverines’ best player. In 2016, she demonstrated that she could be one of the best players ever in the history of the softball. Romero hit at least .450 for the third straight year, including .500 in conference play. She hit 19 home runs in 59 games and had 79 runs batted-in. Romero notched her fourth straight NFCA All-America honors and her third consecutive year as a member of the first team. During Michigan’s time at the WCWS, USA softball named her the 2016 National Collegiate Player of the Year. This past Thursday, Romero became the first recipient of the NFCA D1 Player of the Year award.
In her four years, she played both second base and shortstop and started all but one game. She ranks first in the Michigan record book in career batting average, runs, home runs, RBI and slugging percentage. Romero will continue her softball career as a member of the USSSA Pride, which will play a series at Alumni Field from June 27-29.
Breakout player: Tera Blanco
Recruited as a pitcher, Blanco has spent most of her two seasons in Ann Arbor in the right side of the infield at first base. The sophomore improved on a solid freshman year, hitting .404 with 12 home runs and 66 RBI — an improvement of .113, five and 19 respectively. She also slugged .748, second-best on the team.
Blanco earned her first NFCA All-America first team honors and was named to the All-Big Ten second team. Blanco moved up to the No. 5 spot in the batting order and may hit cleanup next season. The first baseman had a total of 318 fielding opportunities notching 296 putouts — best on the team — and finished the season with a perfect fielding percentage of 1.000.
With Michigan’s two best offensive threats graduating, Blanco will be looked to for dynamic and powerful hitting next season.
She also could see extended time in the circle with the departure of fifth-year senior right-hander Sara Driesenga. In a combined 37 innings in her two years, she sports a 2.08 earned-run average and 22 strikeouts.
Freshman of the year: Faith Canfield
The Wolverines relied on veterans throughout this season, with just two freshman garnering more than 50 at-bats. One of them — catcher Alex Sobczak — was slated to be the regular catcher before fielding problems led to her benching. Designated player Faith Canfield, though, showed her offensive potential by maximizing her 97 at-bats, posting a slash line of .268/.402/.311. Canfield struck out just five times, homered three times, drove in 39 runs and has the ability to play multiple infield positions.
Canfield looks to take over second base after Romero’s graduation this spring. Her 44 games played and 33 starts will serve her well. Canfield also has experience in the postseason, starting in the Wolverines’ first game of the WCWS.
Other freshmen of note include Sobczak and outfielder Natalie Peters. Sobczak hit three home runs and drove in a freshman-leading 17 RBI. To regain her starting spot, she must improve her performance on defense and allow fewer passed balls. Peters appeared in 21 games as a pinch-hitter, notching a .313 average and scoring six runs. The slap-hitter has potential to wreak havoc on the basepaths next season, as she could start in the outfield with the departures of Kelsey Susalla and Sierra Lawrence.
Game of the year: Super Regional Game: Michigan 5, Missouri 4
Hutchins described her Wolverines’ come-from-behind, late-game win over Missouri as “one of the very greatest victories ever in the history of Michigan softball.” Coming from a coach in her 32nd year in Ann Arbor, it clearly has significance. All season long, Michigan was expected to advance to the WCWS, and it did so in an unbelievable fashion.
Down 4-1 heading into the seventh inning, the Wolverines scored four runs to defeat the Tigers and travel to Oklahoma City for their third time in four years. Michigan had just four hits in its first six innings. In the seventh, it had five. The Wolverines loaded the bases for Romero — the NCAA career leader in grand slams — who hit a fly ball to center field, scoring pinch runner Mary Sbonek from third base. It was now 4-2. The Wolverines had a problem though: they were down to their last out.
Kelly Christner wasn’t affected. She swung at Tigers’ right-hander Paige Lowary’s next pitch and lined it down the right-field line to add another run. Senior outfielder Kelsey Susalla doubled home Sierra Lawrence, and the game was tied at four.
Michigan again was down to its last out with Missouri’s 9-1-2 hitters due up in the bottom of the inning. Lowary’s 1-2 pitch to Blanco sailed to the backstop and Christner came sprinting from third and touching home for the go-ahead run. Betsa would stop the Tigers’ bats in the bottom of the 7th for one final time en route to a second consecutive WCWS berth.
Moment of the year: Honoring Hutchins at Alumni Field
In Bloomington on April 2, Hutchins became the winningest coach in NCAA softball history with her 1,458th victory. Her Wolverines run-ruled Indiana, 8-0, that Saturday afternoon.
About two weeks later on April 15, a sold-out crowd at Alumin Field watched Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel honor Hutchins with a ceremony after the Wolverines’ victory over rival Ohio State. As Hutchins stood in the dugout, Manuel offered praise for a coach who has won more games than anyone else in Michigan’s history.
“She’s mad at us. She doesn't want any of this attention,” Manuel said that night. “Thirty-three years of coaching. I hope it is the halfway point in her career.”
A video tribute played on the scoreboard in left field. In the montage, numerous Michigan coaches expressed their amazement with Hutchins’ achievements. Hockey coach Red Berenson, field hockey coach Marcia Pankratz, men’s basketball coach John Beilein and baseball coach Erik Bakich were among those who shared stories and praise for the winningest coach in softball history.
Hutchins thanked her coaching staff and the numerous fans who showed their support, beginning her address by sharing her adoration with Alumni Field.
“This isn’t about me. It's about the University of Michigan,” Hutchins said that night. “Any win we ever get in softball is for the University of Michigan. I am honored and humbled to be up here today.”
Romero perhaps best summarized the sentiments of the players after the game.
“She deserves everything,” Romero said. “I know she doesn’t like the attention. But, she’s the all-time winningest coach.
“She’s a great leader for our program, and she’s made me not only a better player but a better person and has prepared me for everything after college. She’s an amazing woman.”
In a season filled with come-back wins, long home runs and numerous shutouts, it was the honoring of a long-time coach, now the winningest in NCAA softball, that stood out the most.