On June 5, 2016, the Michigan softball team failed to plate a single run in Oklahoma City — college softball’s biggest stage.
Despite trotting out a lineup headlined by National Player of the Year Sierra Romero, the second-ranked Wolverines suffered a 1-0 defeat against No. 7 Florida State in a Women’s College World Series elimination showdown. That ill-fated afternoon was the last time Romero found herself on a softball diamond with her Michigan family.
But that’s set to change at this weekend’s Judi Garman Classic, where the Wolverines (6-8) will square off against No. 20 Oregon (11-4). After spending the last two years playing professionally, Romero joined Ducks’ first-year head coach Melyssa Lombardi’s staff as a volunteer assistant coach ahead of this season.
Though Romero will be stationed in the opposing dugout, her ties to Michigan still run deep. As a 2016 captain, she played an instrumental role in teaching the Wolverines’ freshmen the core values of coach Carol Hutchins. Two-time All-American infielder Faith Canfield and All-Big Ten catcher Katie Alexander eventually emerged from the group of Romero’s proteges.
To this day, Romero is the only player in NCAA history to surpass 300 hits, 300 runs scored and 300 runs batted in, and she still holds all-time records for most career runs scored and grand slams.
Statistical records come and go, but leaders make lasting impressions. And Romero cemented her legacy by embodying her role off the field.
“As a leader, you have to have a standard of behavior,” Hutchins said. “Then you have to be it and enforce it. The minute you tolerate something under the standard, you’re allowing it.
“It’s hard to confront your friend and tell them they’re doing something they shouldn’t be doing and call them on it. That’s very difficult for this age group, but when you really put the mission of the team first, then it isn’t nearly as hard to do. (Romero) did a great job of that.”
Now in her 35th season, Hutchins has produced a staggering 68 All-Americans in Ann Arbor. Given the program’s rich tradition, it’s impossible to walk into the Donald R. Shepherd Softball Center team room without noticing the wall plastered with each of the All-Americans’ names.
If you look closely, you’ll notice that Romero is the only player to make four appearances on the wall.
“We talk about great Michigan women,” Hutchins said, gesturing at the list of honorees. “If you want to come in and see the great players, you can come look at this wall,”
Hutchins paused to marvel at the sheer length of the list before pointing to a blank wall. Nothing but beige paint covered this one.
“But there’s another wall — it’s just not visible,” Hutchins said. “That (wall) is for the kids who were the greatest teammates and kids who were about the right things in the program, not just being good at softball. Kids that were leaders in their own respect and embraced the values of the program.”
Romero is the rare player who belongs on both. Even though her college playing career came to a screeching halt in Oklahoma City, she has applied the lessons she learned as a Wolverine to her role at Oregon. Romero has demanded daily consistency — a cornerstone of Hutchins’ culture — from her players since accepting a position with the Ducks.
To Romero, the life lessons she learned in Ann Arbor run far deeper than her current job.
“Playing for (Hutchins) taught me so much,” Romero told The Daily in a phone interview. “She challenged me in a ton of different ways. It was more than just being a student-athlete — she challenged me as a person and as a leader and she was there for me with everything in my life. I was in college at a very important stage of my life, going from a girl to a woman, and (Hutchins) was there for me and to talk to my family, which lives all the way out in California. She’s definitely a part of my family and she’ll be in my life forever.
“I can’t think of another school I would’ve possibly wanted to attend. I would not be who I am today or know the things I know and be the woman that I am without having attended the University of Michigan and playing for Hutch. For me, it’s home.”
Hutchins and Romero no longer don the same colors, but their common drive — the same attitude that propelled Michigan to a national runner-up finish in 2015 — still runs parallel.
“I know how competitive (Hutchins) is, and she knows how competitive I am,” Romero said. “We’re going to go at it on the coaching side for sure.”
“(Romero) is a Wolverine for life,” Hutchins said. “But we hope she comes in second in our game.”