For the Michigan softball team, it’s a word that has easily described many of the team’s reflections on recent seasons; it also encapsulated their motivations going into this year.
“This team wants to get to Oklahoma City and this team wants to win in Oklahoma City,” fifth-year left-hander Meghan Beaubien said in a preseason interview, referencing the site of the Women’s College World Series. “That’s a big reason I’m back … I’ve never made it out of the regional. I’m not happy with that. No one who’s been here for five years is satisfied with that.”
Two weeks into Big Ten play, that word remains top of mind. Now, however, the context is much more dire.
Right now, the Wolverines aren’t thinking about ending their streak of NCAA Regionals exits anymore. Michigan now faces concerns around what was once taken for granted: its chances to contend for a Big Ten championship.
As the Wolverines face their first 1-4 conference start since 1991, they’re not where they need to be. Here are their keys to bouncing back.
The Taylor Bump of 2021 must arrive
Going into this season, the fifth-year third-baseman made a highly-touted return to lead Michigan in the dirt and at the plate after surging as a senior. Bump boasted eight multi-hit and six multi-RBI games in 2021, making for a solid .325 batting average. She formed an identity around hitting the long ball in key situations, including homers en route to both Regional wins in Seattle.
While Bump’s leadership has been valuable among a relatively inexperienced infield, she hasn’t matched last year’s plate presence. Her batting average only just recently broke .200, and she sits at 11th on the team in hits — the lowest of all the consistent starters.
If Bump continues to underperform, the consequences for the Wolverines’ results will grow in tandem. Senior outfielder Lexie Blair, whose production at the plate had grown significantly in recent weeks, was seen on crutches after an awkward landing in Friday’s series-opener at Northwestern. Bump and her fellow upperclassmen will need to pick up the slack until she returns, and Michigan’s young bats will have to grow up fast to avoid trouble.
Sunday’s win showed a glimpse of what the Wolverines are capable of when their experienced batters step up.
“I told the upperclassmen to start taking ownership of this team,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said after the game. “And I thought they did.”
Bump was the one who emerged to lead that charge. She hit an RBI double to close the Wolverines’ first scoring stint, and she smacked another one to spark the game-winning rally in the top of the seventh.
Bump will have to manufacture these heroic moments more consistently if a fourth Big Ten title is in her future.
‘Co-aces’ must strike together
While Michigan put a lot into strengthening its bats this past offseason, it knew Beaubien, along with senior right-hander Alex Storako, would still have to pull more than their share of the weight in the circle. While both have flashed brief periods of dominance, neither have settled into complete consistency — especially at the same time.
Early on, Storako distanced herself as the clear go-to arm in out-of-conference play, racing to a 12-0 start and a 0.71 ERA. Beaubien, meanwhile, found herself taking a 4-5 record home after spring break. Even when she had a chance at another no-hitter, which defined her career last year, it would get ruined by a home run.
Now, Storako is the one making mistakes. The outing that produced her first loss wasn’t pretty — she bled four runs in two innings en route to the shocking loss against Miami. While she found some of her old stuff again in Evanston, her tendency to give up home runs means she has yet to pick up a Big Ten win this year.
Beaubien held her own on Sunday, setting the Wolverines up for a win in her duel with Northwestern ace Danielle Williams.
While the veterans of Michigan’s pitching staff have each shown flashes of brilliance this season, they haven’t done so in tandem. Going forward, the duo must live up to the “co-aces” moniker Hutchins gave them before the season.
Can no longer afford drops in conference race
The Wolverines’ historic skid has been partially due to poor timing. The Big Ten season’s opening weekend arrived abruptly after their midweek collapse to Miami, and it featured a Nebraska team that now leads the conference. Following that up with a road trip to Northwestern — a team enjoying one of its best starts in program history — has understandably led to a rockier start than average.
The idea of Michigan returning to form and rolling over the vast majority of its remaining conference schedule is imaginable. But earning all those wins and expecting both the Wildcats and the Cornhuskers to falter four times? That seems like a stretch, especially as the two contenders will not face each other at all during the regular season.
The most that the Wolverines can do to even have a shot at their 13th regular season title in 14 years is to hold up their end of the bargain — and keep their fingers crossed. But that takes initiative.
“We’re 1-4 in the Big Ten,” Hutchins said. “If we don’t fight. It’s not acceptable.”
Even that is much less of a given than usual.