With twelve College World Series appearances, and winners of the first national championship east of the Mississippi River in 2005, Michigan softball has earned its reputation as a storied program.
Its postseason results since the graduation of legendary infielder Sierra Romero in 2016, though, may not show it.
The Wolverines have consistently dominated the Big Ten since then. They have held at least a share of the regular-season conference championship in 11 of the last 12 seasons, with the only blemish being a second-place finish in 2017. Early on, Michigan looks on pace to continue its in-conference success. It currently stands at 16-4, winners of 10 out of its last 11 games heading into its home-opener against Michigan State.
It’s in the postseason where things have gotten tricky.
In the three postseasons since their 2016 College World Series run, the Wolverines have failed to advance past the regional stage, including the most recent NCAA tournament in 2019 where they lost to James Madison University on their very own Alumni Field. For an ordinary softball program, three consecutive NCAA regional appearances is nothing to look down upon.
Michigan coach Carol Hutchins does not run an ordinary softball program.
With over 1600 wins, Hutchins entered this season as the winningest D1 softball coach in history. Since leading the Wolverines to their first College World Series appearance in 1995, in only their third trip to the NCAA Tournament, Michigan has not missed the playoffs.
These last three years mark the longest super-regional drought the Wolverines have ever endured since becoming postseason staples in 1995. Add in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, and Michigan is at a point by-far furthest removed from playoff success in the last quarter century.
Stuck on being consistently good for almost a half-decade, the Wolverines are now at an inflection point. They have what it takes, within their current roster, to take the program back to the College World Series. To be great.
They just haven’t shown it yet.
They have shown bits and pieces of a formula destined for success, one seen in the likes of the 2013-2016 teams, when Michigan went to the College World Series in three out of four years, the 2009 College World Series squad or the 2005 National Champions.
Those bits and pieces include one of the most dynamic pitching-duos in the nation: junior right-hander Alex Storako and senior left-hander Meghan Beaubien. Together, along with three innings of support from senior right-hander Sarah Schaefer, they have propelled the Wolverines to a nation-leading .90 ERA, and have placed Michigan as the only program in the country to hold a team ERA under one.
That’s not only dominant, it’s a proven recipe for success. The pitching rotation has held batters to a .158 batting average so far this season. That number is a full .28 points below the average opponent batting average of Michigan’s last five College World Series teams and is on-par with the 2005 champions’ numbers.
“Our pitchers have done a fantastic job of doing their part,” Hutchins said. “They keep us in every game, we’ve had a chance to win every game we’ve played.”
When it comes to a formula that can return the Wolverines to an elite national program, as opposed to a consistent Big Ten powerhouse, pitching is certainly found in the equation. So is fielding. When batters do make contact with balls thrown by Beaubien or Storako — a relatively rare occurrence as they both sit in the top nine in the nation for strikeouts per game — the balls make it to a defensive unit boasting a top-25 fielding percentage.
With such success on one side of the ball, the question turns to where Michigan can go to become elite once again: What’s missing from this team’s equation that teams from years past have had?
The answer runs deeper than just to hit better, it lies in whether or not the Wolverines actually have an attainable path to providing enough run-support to make use of Beaubien and Storako’s elite skill-sets postseason play is the real question at hand.
Luckily for Michigan, they do. As the game of softball evolves towards an emphasis on power-hitting, a common argument has been Michigan’s inability to keep up with the changes. However, recently, the Wolverines’ bats have shown serious pop. Over the last weekend at Ohio State, for example, they blasted seven home runs, and are now tied for third in the Big Ten with 14.
Obviously, no conversation about the Michigan offense can take place without mentioning junior outfielder Lexie Blair. No matter how the offensive unit as a whole has played, Blair has consistently delivered. She’s recorded at least a hit in all 20 games this season, and boasts an astounding .478 batting average. That’s even higher than Romero’s average in 2016, when she led the Wolverines’ last College World Series team in batting.
“Is she one of the best hitters here at Michigan ever? She’s definitely in that conversation,” associate head coach Bonnie Tholl said. “Anytime she steps into the box, you can expect something exciting to happen.”
That 2016 team, the last team to reach what has been a standard for the program, had productive sticks up and down the lineup. They had three batters hit over .400 on the season, and their entire starting lineup hit at least at a .300 clip.
To make it back to the College World Series, the 2021 team doesn’t need to match the batting averages of teams that made it to the World Series before them in order to reach that elite level themselves. They have a historically dominant pitching tandem, all they need to do is seize the potential that the current lineup holds, and the promised land can return to sight for the Wolverines.
The improvement doesn’t have to be dramatic. With the offensive surge last weekend against Indiana, Michigan showed promise up and down its lineup. The team has already brought its previously-dismal team batting average up to .302, and now have five batters hitting north of .295.
“We are upward trending in offense,” Hutchins said on March 28. “And again, once again, hitting becomes contagious.”
As they gain momentum in the batter’s box, those numbers aren’t too far off from the 2015 team, who lost in the College World Series final to Florida in three games. Their pitching tandem, meanwhile, held a 1.74 ERA, far higher than Beaubien’s and Storako’s.
As opposed to praying for a miraculous upsurge in hitting, where the entire team is batting over .300 for example, in order to play elite softball, the Wolverines just need further in-season improvements from players already starting to get hot. This includes senior infielder Natalia Rodriguez. She entered the series against Indiana batting .231 and ninth in the lineup. She now hits .309 and watches leadoff-hitter Blair from the on-deck circle. A continued upswing from her can provide a lethal one-two punch that will produce ample support for Michigan pitchers.
Pair Rodriguez with batters like senior first baseman Lou Allan, who smashed three home runs over the weekend, and the offense begins to take shape. Add in a crop of young Wolverine hitters that are getting more and more comfortable with gained experiences, such as sophomore Julia Jimenez whose batting average has swelled to .295 and continues to rise, and all-of-a-sudden this Michigan team starts to look like the dominant ones of years past.
“We’re working our offense hard,” Hutchins said. “What they can do better is just focus on their one-pitch moment, and that’s all we can ask of them.”
Whether the offense will continue to improve remains in question.
Michigan softball is at a crossroads between being Big Ten bullies and national stars. They’re at an intersection between a quarter century of continued success and a future that is far from certain. They have the missing link in their grasp: a roster beaming with potential, a roster capable of steering the program back toward consistent appearances in softball’s biggest stage. Toward greatness.
They just have to harness it.