Heading into this weekend, Michigan knew it had a tall task at hand. With four ranked clashes in two days, the Wolverines needed to improve on their opening weekend performance if they wanted to challenge elite competition.
For the most part, they did just that.
The No. 19 Michigan softball team (5-4 overall) continually adjusted on its way to a 2-2 record at the St. Pete Clearwater Elite Invitational, dropping games against No. 7 Oklahoma State (6-4) and No. 5 Florida State (9-0) while picking up wins against No. 24 Central Florida (6-4) and No. 21 Louisiana State (6-5). Throughout the weekend, the offense began to come alive, led by another stellar performance from graduate transfer outfielder Kristina Burkhardt.
“Seeing the progress that we were able to make against those tough teams, I think it says a lot about this team and how we’re not backing down,” Burkhardt said. “There’s a lot of positive talk around this team right now, and we’re looking forward to more challenges.”
The weekend got off to a poor start. Oklahoma State left-hander Kelly Maxwell was unhittable, retiring the first 18 Wolverines she faced. Michigan managed only one hit — a Burkhardt bloop double in the seventh inning — while fifth-year left-hander Meghan Beaubien gave up an early three-run home run, en route to a 4-0 defeat that reciprocated the frustrations of opening weekend.
But the offense adjusted.
The first signs of life from the bats came during Friday’s second game against UCF. Early on, the Wolverines employed a small-ball strategy, picking up two runs on wild pitches. Then, in the fourth inning, Burkhardt broke the game open. With the bases loaded, she stroked a ball into deep center field for a three-RBI triple, three of her four RBIs in the game. Meanwhile, senior right-hander Alex Storako turned in a complete-game shutout, and Michigan cruised to a 6-0 victory.
“I’m just keeping my aggressive mindset at the plate, letting the game play itself out and just having consistent at bats,” Burkhardt said. “I might not have gotten on in my first at bat, but in the second and third I was able to make that adjustment.”
Against FSU on Saturday, defensive struggles put the Wolverines in an early deficit. A double clutch by freshman shortstop Ella McVey, a miscommunication on a routine pop-up to first and a bobbled ball by fifth-year third baseman Taylor Bump extended the second and third innings, allowing the Seminoles to pick up two early runs. While the offense continued to get runners on, they couldn’t bring them in, stranding the game-tying run in both the sixth and seventh innings before falling, 2-1.
But again, the bats adjusted when they faced LSU. With two outs in the second inning and in danger of stranding another runner, freshman utility player Annabelle Widra smacked a double down the left field line to bring in a run, and McVey slapped a ground ball up the middle to bring Widra in.
Two innings later, the Wolverines got another two-out rally going, culminating in a two-RBI single for Burkhardt and a bunt single RBI for freshman outfielder Ellie Sieler. Storako carried a shutout into the seventh inning, and the Wolverines closed out the weekend with a 6-1 win.
“(Michigan coach Carol Hutchins) talked a lot this weekend about focusing on the process, and that’s just what I tried to do,” McVey said. “She always says that the ball doesn’t know who you are, so just stay process focused and good things will happen.”
Though the Wolverines weren’t perfect, they constantly adjusted, and took a number of steps forward in just their second weekend of the season. They showed an improved offensive performance, taking an undefeated top-five team to the final pitch and notching two ranked wins.
“We’ve played nine games, and six of them have come against top 20 teams,” Hutchins said. “We competed fantastic this weekend. We got a lot better and I think our team’s learning a little bit.
“We’re learning how to compete at this level.”