Under the leadership of Carol Hutchins for the past 38 seasons, Michigan has long established itself as a high-achieving destination in the world of college softball.
Inevitably, patterns emerge from that type of consistency.
Seasoned followers of the program are well aware of this, and it grounds their expectations pretty strongly. For the past five years, the pattern has been simple as ever: the pitching dominates, the batting frustrates, a regular season Big Ten title is won and an NCAA Regional is somehow lost.
But now the regular season Big Ten title is out of the picture. That pattern — in its classic understanding — doesn’t apply to this year.
This shift leads a whole host of ways that the current pattern for the Wolverines stands apart from longtime program traditions, or at least the narratives that defined them before the season.
Follow along, and become acquainted with these new realities.
Alex Storako is the ace
Michigan’s coach was specific in how she defined her pitching staff back in February.
“We’ve got our two aces, and I call both aces,” Hutchins said in a preseason interview. “(Senior right-hander Alex) Storako is an ace and (fifth-year left-hander Meghan) Beaubien is an ace. So we have a deuce, we don’t just have an ace.”
That description was well-reflected in expectations. But now, as one weekend of regular season play remains, Storako’s stands at 20-7 with a 1.60 ERA. Beaubien, meanwhile, has a record of 8-5 and an ERA of 2.39.
It is no secret that Beaubien’s role has been fundamental. She has fought to earn the Wolverines some of their toughest wins (twice in save situations), and an emotional final day from Alumni Field this past weekend re-affirmed how synonymous she is with the Michigan softball team at large.
But on almost every occasion that the Wolverines’ pitchers truly imposed their will onto a game result — like they have done for years — Storako was the one leading the effort. Her shutout was what turned the tide in last weekend’s Minnesota series, despite the bats not truly picking up until the next day. The week before, her dominance rescued Michigan in the series finale against Ohio State. The Michigan State series finale earlier that week? A near no-hitter from Storako.
Beaubien’s relative lack of these imposing wins to her name, especially against major opponents, is admittedly a consequence of circumstance. No moment this season was more representative of this truth than her outing against Kent State, in which she too was one pitch short of an impressive no-hitter. That pitch just so happened to become a game-tying home run, and Beaubien’s night was over in an instant.
At the end of the day, the season has played out to reveal the simpler reality: Storako is now the singular face of this pitching staff. The Wolverines’ success will come more through her than anyone else in the circle, even when considering Beaubien’s importance.
Batting order has depth
Going into this season, addressing some lingering offensive deficiencies was a well-known focus for Michigan.
The makeup of the team suggested that its solution was a combination of old and new leadership. Both fifth-year third-baseman Taylor Bump and senior outfielder Lexie Blair returned as lead threats on the batting order, and graduate outfielder Kristina Burkhardt transferred in from North Carolina as a voice and bat with sixth-year experience.
Burkhardt found plenty of productivity early on, but Bump and Blair took until the home games to find a fuller sense of their older selves.
But the positive side effect of their relative absence was how different names began to step in at the plate instead. From freshman shortstop Ella McVey’s early scoring, to sophomore utility player Sierra Kersten’s still team-leading home run explosion, to senior catcher Hannah Carson’s RBI streak, junior first-baseman Lauren Esman’s extra-base hits, contributions from freshman outfielder Ellie Sieler and recent surges from graduate second baseman Melina Livingston and junior outfielder Audrey LeClair — not to mention freshman utility player Annabelle Widra’s ability to turn over the order on a positive note.
If you thought that was a deep list, that is the point. Add Bump and Blair back into the picture, and the ceiling for this lineup is easily one of the highest in recent memory for the Wolverines.
That’s an optimistic new reality to think about, so why hasn’t it been contemplated more? Well…
The biggest aspect of Michigan’s new realities was revealed by the very nature that the old ones were discarded.
Why couldn’t the Wolverines, with this all-time ace and balanced lineup, secure a championship they had previously claimed 12 of the last 13 years? It’s an enigmatic reality at its core, but on the surface they just struggle to put it all together.
The best claim that Michigan has to the contrary was the last game it played. On the other side of an emotional win from Storako paired with Beaubien’s assistance, the Wolverines never relented at the plate despite a handful of pressure-serving scoring outbursts from Minnesota. Blair and Burkhardt hit home runs, but junior designated player Lexie Voss and sophomore catcher Keke Tholl added themselves to the long list of breakout performers.
But that was just a substantial piece of a single weekend. With all of the back-and-forth of the Wolverines’ conference slate at large, it wasn’t nearly enough consistency to maintain the pattern of winning regular season Big Ten Championships.
Maybe it will be enough of a shakeup, and enough displays of potential, to break the pattern of postseason shortcomings too?
Time will tell how these new realities, good and bad, hurt or reward Michigan.