Carol Hutchins leaned forward in her seat, pausing before answering a question posed by one of the reporters clustered around her. The room’s attention rested on Michigan’s softball coach. Yet the words that hung on the wall behind her, displayed in white lettering and accentuated by a faded blue background, became hard to ignore.
The Team, The Team, The Team.
Bo Schembechler’s famed phrase has grown synonymous with all facets of Michigan athletics, softball included. For Hutchins, it’s a rallying cry that merits echoing.
Hutchins believes her team has the individual talent to be a top-16 seed come May. But reaching such a point requires more than individual success. With the 2020 season finally here, Hutchins is about to find out how quickly the group learns how to play together.
“I like our group a lot,” Hutchins said. “And now we gotta learn how to go into battle together. And everybody needs to contribute. Contributions, some of them are pitching, some of them are getting key hits in big situations and sometimes it’s just as simple as being the one in the dugout who helps keep everybody up.”
The softball season, in a sense, is a battle. It’s grueling. It’s lengthy. And it requires more than pure talent to succeed. A team has to have a collective will to win and its hearts invested, a mantra Hutchins has attempted to instill within her players.
“We’re trying to get our kids to understand that we need to be risk takers, and just go for things and not to be tentative,” Hutchins said. “We practice more aggressive things, aggressive style baserunning and we’re gonna have to be that team that just gets out there and gets after it. We have to figure out a way to do it all together, be together. That’s gonna be us.”
This playing style will be first put to the test on Friday, when the Wolverines kick off their five game season-opening weekend in Tampa Bay at the USF-Wilson Demarini Tournament. Friday’s slate provides an opportunity for Michigan to shake off some expected rust — Georgia State and Illinois State, its two opponents, finished with a combined record of 26-79 a year ago.
For the Wolverines, shaking off the rust quickly is key to avoiding a repeat of the doldrums of last February, when a flat start dipped the program to a low point not seen since 2001, the team leaving its first two tournaments under .500.
The rest of the weekend schedule provides an uptick in competition. A game against No. 7 Florida, a perennial softball powerhouse coming off a College World Series appearance, looms on Saturday. While the Gators lost their top pitcher, Kelly Barnhil, and hitter, Amanda Lorenz, in the offseason, they still pose a formidable challenge.
So does host South Florida, a team that made it to the Tallahassee Regional in the NCAA Tournament a year ago. An early Sunday face-off with Fresno State, a middle-of-the-pack group that returns a steady nucleus of players, caps off the weekend.
“It’s going to be a learning curve,” Hutchins said of the early-season gameplay. “And I don’t know how this year’s gonna go, but I know one thing. As we evolve, as a coaching staff, we’re gonna assess every week what we can do to help (the players) achieve their goals.”
As for the players, at last Tuesday’s media day, they wore faces tired of the offseason and itching to return to competitive softball. Internally, it seems as if the page has long been flipped from 2019 to 2020. Now, with the season on the doorstep, this year’s book can finally begin to be written.
What identity will this year’s Michigan team write? Is it a cohesive, aggressive unit like Hutchins envisions, one that embodies Schembechler’s words? Or is it something different, requiring perhaps a steeper learning curve than anticipated?
The five-game slate this weekend won’t provide a definite answer — Hutchins admitted that could take until next month. But it will reveal at least a glimpse of clarity.