After losing to Notre Dame 2-1, the Michigan softball team (43-13 overall,18-3 Big Ten) saw its season come to an end in the NCAA Regionals.
For much of this season, it seemed like the Wolverines’ early exit in the 2017 NCAA Tournament was a fluke. The Wolverines reclaimed the Big Ten regular season title, put together multiple 15-plus game win streaks, and statistically had one of the most dominant pitching staffs and defenses in the country.
The warning signs, though, were real. Throughout the season, Michigan failed to capitalize with runners in scoring position — especially when it mattered most. Against the Fighting Irish, that trend that came back to bite it. Despite a dominant stretch in the middle of the season, the Wolverines saw blowout losses to Western Michigan and Ohio State at home nearing the end of the season.
By the time Michigan State eliminated Michigan in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament, its fate seemed all but sealed. The Wolverines narrowly missed out on hosting an NCAA Regionals group, and Michigan’s momentum — and more importantly, its confidence — was all gone.
The Daily breaks down the highlights of the 2018 softball season, and ultimately where Michigan and head coach Carol Hutchins might go from here.
Most Valuable Player: Meghan Beaubien, freshman, pitcher
Most freshmen don’t just walk into a softball program like Michigan’s and get the proverbial keys to the Ferrari, but the left hander made it clear right away that she was no ordinary rookie, leading the NCAA in wins with a 33-6 record and compiling a 1.16 earned-run averaged. In her first collegiate start, Beaubien tossed a six-inning no-hitter and proceeded to accomplish that feat two more times. As a result of her early heroics, Hutchins wasn't afraid to make Beaubien the workhorse of the rotation, putting the left hander in for 217.0 innings pitched, over 100 more innings than the next closest pitcher.
It didn’t take long for Beaubien to gain national recognition, either. The left hander notched countless Big Ten Pitcher of the Week awards and ended the season as one of only three freshman finalists for the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year award. For a team that needed an ace after Megan Betsa graduated, Beaubien fit the bill. She’s well on the path to becoming the next great Wolverine pitcher.
Honorable Mention: Faith Canfield, junior, second baseman
Breakout Player: Madison Uden, sophomore, third base
After only seeing 47 at-bats all of last season, Uden initially struggled — hitting just .186 through her first thirteen games as the starting third baseman. But as the season progressed, the sophomore morphed into one of the teams most consistent hitters, finishing second on the team in batting average (.357) and on-base percentage (.448), and third in runs batted in (35).
One of the areas where Uden improved considerably was her plate discipline. In the offseason, the third baseman did extensive vision training to process pitches more quickly and efficiently and has since become a key cog as the fifth hitter in the Michigan lineup. When Uden earned a walk-off walk against Ball State, Hutchins summed up the sophomore’s improvement best.
“Last year's Maddie might have torn herself out of the at-bat,” Hutchins said. “I think she’s matured. I think she’s done a nice job of staying within herself.
If Uden can continue to maintain that calmness and maturity at the plate, the Wolverines can safely plug her into the lineup and not worry about third base for the next two years.
Honorable Mention: Natalia Rodriguez, freshman, shortstop
Best Moment: Michigan beats Ohio State 8-0 to clinch the Big Ten regular season title
Michigan’s five inning run-rule win over archrival Ohio State was a microcosm of its season as a whole to that point. The Wolverines struggled to hit early on with three outs in the first four at-bats. Junior second baseman Faith Canfield, however, broke out of her prolonged hitting slump in the second inning with a single, then stole a base and took advantage of an error to steal another one, sending two Michigan runners home. After that, Uden even drew a walk in a 3-0 count, using her aforementioned plate discipline to buy the Wolverines a 4-0 lead.
Just like the general path of the season, the Wolverines struggled to produce right away. But once they got going and made the right adjustments, the talent of the team shined through and produced.
Honorable Mention: Tera Blanco’s no-hitter against Eastern Michigan
While Michigan did win 43 games and the Big Ten regular season crown, the Wolverines fell short of the Super Regional for the second year in a row, That’s something they haven’t done since 1992-93 — Hutchins’ first two years reaching the NCAA Tournament with Michigan.
The Wolverines will miss senior right hander and first baseman Tera Blanco’s team-leading 44 RBI and 11 home runs and will have to redistribute her 92.0 IP among the rest of the rotation. They’ll also need to replace the production from senior outfielder and first baseman Aidan Falk, who was third on the team in slugging percentage and second in at-bats. Every player from the 2015 Michigan team that finished as runners-up in the Women’s College World Series has graduated.
That’s not to say that Michigan doesn’t have talent waiting in the wings, though. Beaubien should be ready to manage an even bigger pitching load next year, and freshman right hander Sarah Schaefer posted a 1.59 ERA over 62.1 IP last year. In all likelihood this will be a two-pitcher rotation. Freshmen first baseman Lou Allan should slide right into the hole left at first base by Blanco and Falk. Allan was injured for much of the year, but flashed promise in limited plate appearances in the same way that Uden did a year ago.
While the Wolverines didn't advance as far as they might have expected or hoped, their outlook is far from dim. They have an ace, established veteran starters at almost every position, and are a year removed from the pressures of replacing former Michigan greats like Betsa and Kelly Christner.
Now, it’s time for these Wolverines to forge their own unique brand of greatness. Getting back on the track to a World Series just might rely on how well they can do that.