When the No. 17 Michigan softball team takes the field this weekend, it will see a pair of unfamiliar foes on the other side of the diamond.
The Wolverines (3-2) will travel to Chapel Hill, N.C. to participate in their fourth straight ACC/Big Ten Challenge. This year, they’ll take on Louisville (3-2) and North Carolina (2-2), who they haven’t faced since 2014 and 2016, respectively.
Since those meetings, each program has evolved. At Louisville, longtime head coach Sandy Pearsall retired in 2018 after an 18-year stint. Despite the loss of its icon, the program hasn’t lost a step under the tutelage of first-year head coach Holly Aprile, who compiled a 271-234 record in ten seasons as Pittsburgh’s head coach. History will be on the Wolverines’ side when the teams clash on Friday and Saturday, as they have won 18 of the 21 all-time meetings.
Meanwhile, two softball coaching legends — Michigan’s Carol Hutchins and North Carolina’s Donna Papa — will put 71 combined years of experience to the test when the Wolverines square off against the Tar Heels on Friday and Sunday. Hutchins has established the upper-hand thus far and will look to improve upon her 9-1 all-time record against North Carolina. The Tar Heels received four votes in this week’s USA Today/NFCA Coaches Poll after last weekend’s impressive showing in Mexico, where they captured a 4-0 victory against No. 9 South Carolina at the Puerto Vallarta Challenge.
The Wolverines have posted a 9-3 record in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge over the last three years — a stretch highlighted by last season’s thrilling triumph over Florida State, the eventual national champion. In that game, then-freshman pitcher Meghan Beaubien’s two-hit shutout propelled Michigan to a 1-0 victory. If the Wolverines are to see similar success against this season’s ACC opponents, Hutchins will need solid innings from freshman pitcher Alex Storako — who recorded a 2.33 earned run average while amassing 18 strikeouts over 15 innings in Tampa last weekend.
Because Beaubien faced the same pressure early in her freshman year, Storako has looked to her for guidance.
“(Beaubien) is a great mentor,” Storako said. “It’s so exciting to have her. She has such great poise and is someone that anyone would love to look up to. She’s really pointed me in the right direction at times and I love having her on the pitching staff with me.”
As the weekend goes on, Hutchins hopes to find a resolution to her lineup’s biggest question mark: first base. Last weekend, senior Alex Sobczak and sophomore Taylor Bump split the first base duties, recording seven and eight at-bats, respectively. Before last weekend, Sobczak — who started 22 of the Wolverines’ 57 games last season — had started 41 games at catcher and two at third base, but none at first base.
On the other hand, Bump’s natural positions are third base and shortstop, meaning she is accustomed to playing defense on the other side of the infield. But with junior Madison Uden and sophomore Natalia Rodriguez in the fold, the lineup already has a pair of standouts opposite first base. Though Hutchins has decided to give Bump a shot at the first base job, only her performance can dictate whether or not she secures a full-time job.
The ACC/Big Ten Challenge will live up to its name by posing just that — a challenge, at least for Hutchins’ first base candidates.
Despite roughly equal opportunity, neither player recorded more than two hits and each struck out at least twice. If Sobczak and Bump don’t make the most of the next few games, Hutchins could start turning to other options as soon as the end of the weekend.
“First base is a hitting position, we all know, but you’ve got to be able to take care of the defense,” Hutchins said. “We’ve got to find a place for our best hitters. And first of all, I’ve got to figure out who the best hitters are.”