Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins walked into her post-game press conference Friday with red-faced and puffy-eyed senior third baseman Lindsay Montemarano and sophomore second baseman Faith Canfield in tow.
One player is in her final postseason, and the other hopes to be at the Big Ten Tournament podium for happier occasions in upcoming seasons.
In a matter of two hours and 23 minutes, the Wolverines went from the No. 2 seed with sights of its tenth title to swift elimination after a shocking, 5-4 quarterfinal loss to Michigan State.
Despite the heartbreaker, Hutchins held unwavering admiration for the Spartans. She and rival coach Jacquie Joseph enjoyed a long post-game embrace, a clear sign of mutual respect between the friends.
“You have to congratulate Michigan State, Jacquie Joseph, for one outstanding game and tournament,” Hutchins said. “And I’ve said it before when we played them in April, it’s such an improved program and they’re going in such a great direction and, you know, they got it done tonight. They wouldn’t quit and they were tough (batters) 1-9. Things went their way, the ball fell their way. It’s their turn, so I congratulate them. I told them to win the whole thing.
“To quote one of my favorite coaches, (Michigan State basketball coach) Tom Izzo, ‘There’s room for two great teams in this state.’”
After initial disbelief and sadness of the quick exit subside comes the ultimate question on Wolverine fans’ minds — what now?
Sunday night, when all conference tournaments conclude, the NCAA will reveal the fate of Michigan and other teams on the road to the Women’s College World Series. Following its defeat, the seventeenth-ranked Wolverines will likely miss out on hosting regionals, instead traveling for the balance of the postseason.
Before the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan hovered around the last few spots to host a regional, needing a solid run this weekend to make its case for more postseason softball in Ann Arbor. Now, the Wolverines won’t be the highest seed in their respective region and two losses will end their chances to capture the title that has evaded them since 2005.
“The mood (of the team is) not very good,” Hutchins said. “A loss is like a death, you have to grieve, you have to work through it. The only people we’re going to blame is yourself, to take responsibility for what we did well and what we didn’t do well.
“We’re not going to blame anybody else. And that’s easy to do — and that’s what a lot of people out there will do — whether they blame me or blame the umpire. You know what? We didn’t get it done, they got it done. Congratulate them, we need to move on. By Sunday, we’re going to have to move on.”
Michigan doesn’t know where it’s heading for regionals. But at this point, it doesn’t matter.
Hutchins already moved to planning, telling her team they’ll practice Sunday with a need to convert the red faces and puffy eyes to sole focus on the task at hand — making a deep run at the Women College World Series.
“I’m extremely confident we can hold it together,” Montemarano said. “At the end of the day, this is an extremely tough loss — we set higher expectations for ourselves. But at the end of the day, we know we have more pitches left. And if we understand that, we have to get back.”
Added Hutchins: “Our season’s not over. We still have games.”