Thursday, March 12, 2020 was what Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins described as “the worst day of every coach’s career.” The day COVID-19 brought the entire world of sports to a sudden stop.
That was 87 days ago. By now, the softball season would be over, the champions would have been crowned in Oklahoma City and someone would have carelessly asked Hutchins if she had any plans to retire after her 37th season as the head coach of Michigan softball.
None of that actually happened. In its place, all we have are trends, hypotheticals and predictions based on just 23 games.
The good news: That’s enough information to tell you all of the storylines and excitement you missed as a result of the abrupt and untimely end to the season.
Lexie Blair: Sophomore slump or slow start?
One of the most interesting early-season developments was sophomore outfielder Lexie Blair’s early hitting struggles. As a freshman, Blair posted a .406 batting average with 54 RBI and 22 doubles. Entering her sophomore season, there were high expectations for Blair to perform at the elite level she established in 2019.
Blair herself held those same expectations.
“For me, in the beginning, I was just putting a lot of unnecessary weight on my shoulders,” Blair told The Daily in February. “Trying too hard not to disappoint the team after the (freshman) year I had. Trying to live up to expectations when really I just needed to get out and just play the game like I know how.”
Yet, in her first 13 games of 2020, Blair was hitting at just a .175 clip and lost her leadoff spot, eventually sinking down to eighth in the lineup.
After her uncharacteristic start she made a phone call to a former teammate; whatever was said on that call appeared to help Blair regain her confidence.
Over the final 10 games of the season, Blair went 15 for 35, posting a .429 batting average. Those final 10 opponents were some of the best in softball including No. 1 UCLA, No. 2 Washington, No. 3 Texas and No. 21 UCF. So not only was Blair trending upwards at an impressive rate, she was doing it against harder competition.
To say Blair would have ended at or above her .406 average from her freshman year had the 2020 season been played in full would be a strong assertion, yet it was certainly possible considering Blair’s upward trajectory.
Now, Michigan will have to wait until the 2021 season to decide whether Blair is truly the star-studded slugger from her freshman campaign or the strong but streaky hitter she was as a sophomore.
Abby Skvarce: A true designated hitter
In softball, there’s a position titled “designated player,” which fills a slot in your lineup that can be used somewhat flexibly, but when your designated player holds the highest batting average, on base percentage and second highest slugging percentage among starters and bats cleanup, she should definitely be called your designated hitter.
Senior Abby Skvarce appeared in 37 at bats, which is more in a shortened season than in any of her previous three full seasons. And it’s pretty easy to see why Hutchins gave more nods to Skvarce this year than ever before — an on-base plus slugging percentage at .786 tops all other starters while she knocked in seven runs, all on a team that struggled to find consistent offensive production.
Despite extended eligibility granted by the NCAA to spring athletes, Skvarce will not be returning in 2021. This means that after three years in the system and finally proving herself as a viable offensive contributor in her senior season, Skvarce is never going to suit up as a Wolverine again. And a COVID-inflicted season ensured we wouldn’t find out what Skvarce could really do with a full year as a starter.
Julia “Juju” Jimenez: The Future face of Michigan softball
The freshman came in and did nothing short of impress. Jimenez, the No. 20 overall prospect according to FloSoftball, walked into the building more than just ready to play — she was ready to start.
Offensively, she boasted 12 runs, seven RBI, seven doubles and a .263 batting average. Sure, the numbers don’t jump off the page, but for a freshman batting leadoff, it’s nothing to scoff at. Not to mention, when Blair couldn’t find a rhythm, it was Jimenez who Hutchins turned to as the answer for the first spot in the batting order.
“Juju didn’t make it any bigger than it was,” Hutchins told The Daily in February. “Which was, ‘I’m batting.’ She doesn’t care when.”
That mentality is exactly what a team looks for in their batters — just bat.
But Jimenez moving into the spot of her upperclassmen wasn’t just in the batting order, it was also in the field. Just two games after being moved up into the leadoff spot, Jimenez shifted over from second base to shortstop. The previous shortstop, junior Natalia Rodriguez, who swapped positions with Jimenez, had held the starting position at shortstop for two years prior to the sudden mix-up.
Why? Hutchins never gave a straight answer. But when commenting on Jimenez’s capabilities, she described them simply as “her swag on the field.”
With her freshman year cut short, we were unable to flesh out just how good Jimenez could be. One thing is for sure, though: Jimenez will see the field plenty over the course of the next three years. Jimenez’s dynamic fielding ability paired with her stoic hitting confidence is the perfect recipe for a star player that can anchor the Wolverines’ lineup, something they’ve been missing since Sierra Romero in 2016.
The rest of the season: how far would Michigan have gone?
First, I need to acknowledge that with a 15-8 record, the 18th ranked Wolverines still had not played a single home game. In 2019, Michigan entered its home series at 12-10 en route to a 33-3 record down the stretch, including a 17-2 record at home. So, were the 2020 Wolverines poised to make a similar run?
In short: yes.
The trend of winning in the latter half of the season is not uncommon for Michigan, and there’s a pretty simple explanation for why — besides ‘home field advantage,’ (which does help). The Big Ten, and other regionally close opponents, are simply not as good as the SEC, PAC-12 and other southern and western teams that the Wolverines face off against earlier in the season.
That’s not to say the Big Ten is a bad conference, there are certainly some contenders like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Northwestern that would give Michigan a run for its money. Even then, those teams weren’t performing as well as what may have been expected at the start of the season with only No. 22 Wisconsin ranked.
Based on the first 23 games of the season, the Wolverines appeared to be the best team in the Big Ten. I believe they would have claimed the Big Ten regular season title for the second year in a row and had a chance to grab the repeat tournament championship trophy as well. In the tournament, the largest barrier would have been Wisconsin’s powerful offense containing Kayla Konwent and Stephanie Lombardo, somewhat of a mismatch to Michigan’s lower-scoring pace.
In the NCAA tournament, the Wolverines would have seeded well enough to host a regional in Ann Arbor. This year, I could see them getting past the first stage but likely falling in the super regional when the competition truly ramped up.
So no, COVID-19 did not prevent you from seeing another Michigan softball World Series run. What it did take away was a chance to gauge the trajectory of the team and the core players it has to build around in the coming years.
But like everything else right now because of the pandemic, those answers are unknown — so like everyone else, we’ll just have to wait.
Stoll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @nkstoll.