Sierra Romero still remembers the first time she saw Michigan coach Carol Hutchins get ejected.
Early during her recruitment process, Romero, a high-schooler at the time, was watching the Wolverines in action during one of their early-season tournaments in California.
Michigan, Romero recalled, was struggling and in need of a spark.
And Hutchins provided it, arguing a call with an umpire and subsequently getting tossed.
“I was so pumped when I saw her get kicked out,” Romero recalled. “I think she was purposely trying to do that because she wanted the team to get a little fire in them. Right after she got kicked out of the game, they scored a ton of runs and ended up winning.”
Romero wasn’t put off by her future coach’s fiery display — in fact, she admired it.
“I want a coach that’s going to fight for me,” she said.
Fast forward to a Wednesday afternoon last month, and sophomore catcher Aidan Falk is sitting in the softball team’s administrative building talking about Romero.
The No. 2 Michigan softball team has just finished conditioning, and Falk is still wearing her uniform.
Asked about her first impressions of Romero, Falk grins and laughs before giving her answer — an answer that suggests Romero and Hutchins possess the same type of on-the-field presence.
“I was intimidated — hands-down intimidated,” Falk recalls. “She has a very fierce look on her face when she plays, and I was like, ‘Oh, this girl is going to be terrifying.’ ”
Just before Falk finishes, the door opens, and Romero herself walks in. She’s followed by a procession of several teammates, who file in and sit down next to Falk. Romero, though, heads to the side, out of view. As Falk talks about Romero, about her leadership, batting advice and the impromptu dance sessions the two occasionally hold during batting practice, the senior shortstop is within earshot.
When Falk finishes talking, the attention turns to Romero.
At first glance, it’s not clear what had Falk so intimidated. Romero is relatively small in stature, standing at 5-foot-5, and her facial expression is neutral.
She is asked about her mindset going into the fourth at-bat of a recent game against Florida State, after she had struck out three consecutive times, and the room falls silent. Intentional or not, the intimidation Falk recalled is apparent now. The calm vibe of the room is gone, and Romero now stares straight ahead.
“Swing the bat.”
The room remains silent for a couple seconds. Her teammates glance at her, and then break out into laughter.
Sierra Romero is here, and you’ve just been introduced.
It was apparent early on to Michael and Melissa Romero that their eldest daughter was mature for her age. Michael remembers being able to take Sierra as a baby to restaurants without worrying about her throwing a tantrum. He barely remembers her ever crying at all.
“She, out of all of my children, was probably the least maintenance,” Michael said. “She just did her own thing. We got lucky with her.”
During one of her dad’s baseball games, which she often attended growing up, Sierra was in the bleachers with her mom when her dad blasted a home run so far it landed on the freeway.
“I remember looking at my mom (and) freaking out,” Romero said. “I didn’t know a ball could go so far. (After that), I would always fall asleep watching baseball on (my dad’s) back in the living room, so he put me in softball because he saw how much I liked it.”
Though her dad’s baseball-playing days may have influenced Sierra to pick up softball, he believes her early skill developed from her love of the game — she simply wanted to be good so badly.
“I was always at softball games,” Romero said. “(I was) always practicing and always wanted to play on the best travel ball team, so I was constantly on the go every weekend. Traveling up to Anaheim, Orange County, whether it was for training or practice, but it was pretty much sports all the time.”
With that conviction, it wasn’t long before Romero and her parents started fielding requests from travel ball coaches who wanted Sierra to play on their teams.
At just 8 years old, Romero embraced the tough competition, long drives and year-round schedule. She knew playing travel ball could eventually land her a college scholarship, and that was her next goal.
Despite an admitted desire to coach her, Michael stuck to providing occasional off-field advice. He let his daughter learn from the tutelage of her coaches and peers as she gradually became a highly touted prospect.
Then, when she was getting ready to enter high school, she had her big breakthrough.
Romero was invited to a selective recruiting camp in California, and shortly thereafter, began receiving e-mails and letters from colleges.
Throughout her recruitment process, there was always one school that stood out among the rest, partly because of a childhood experience.
When she was 8 years old, Romero attended her first college fastpitch softball game, a contest between San Diego State and Michigan.
“I don’t remember a ton about it, but I definitely remember going and watching the team,” Romero said. “My dad said that I told him that I wanted to play for Michigan. And at that time I was so young that I didn’t even know I was going to be recruited, but he took me to all the games that we could go to with our schedule, and I remember going and watching Michigan play a lot.”
It’s usually the head coach that’s always calling the sought-after recruit, but Romero was so excited about Michigan that she couldn’t stop herself from constantly phoning Hutchins.
Romero called every week on Friday, or every other week on Friday. She always wanted to talk to Hutchins, and it was always on a Friday night.
“ ‘Aren’t you going out and hanging out with your friends or something?’ ” Romero recalls Hutchins saying. “I’d be like, ‘Maybe later,’ but I’d just want to stay at home and relax because I was usually tired from softball.”
They talked about everything, and the two were really close before Romero even enrolled.
She and her family then scheduled an unofficial visit, with one caveat: Sierra insisted that it take place during the infamous Michigan winter.
“It was during a camp, so I was going to get to play softball and experience Michigan at its worst, because I had never really been in snow,” Romero said. “If I liked it, I knew I could definitely be there for four to five years.”
The question of whether or not she could handle the weather was answered near the end of their visit: While her dad was trying to reach their car in a snowstorm, Sierra was busy throwing snowballs at him.
She loved the visit so much that she wanted to make a verbal commitment during the trip, but Hutchins insisted she wait and think it over. So Romero took a couple days to let the euphoria simmer down, but her feelings for Michigan had not subsided.
She told her parents, and then called Hutchins to deliver the news. The choice itself was easy; in fact, the hardest part of her commitment process was letting other coaches know that she had chosen Michigan and would be cancelling already-scheduled visits to their schools.
Eight-year-old Sierra’s dream of playing for the Wolverines was coming true.
Of course, the expectations for Romero were sky high.
By the time her high school career was over, she had risen to a lofty ranking as the No. 3 recruit in the nation, according to ESPN.
Duke assistant coach Amanda Chidester, a former Wolverine who spent 2013 working with Michigan as a student-assistant, was especially hesitant to buy into the hype surrounding the freshman.
After all, Chidester had just finished an illustrious career in Ann Arbor, and had seen her fair share of good players.
But once she got to work with Romero, both in Ann Arbor and later during their time together on the U.S. National Team, Chidester knew right away that the power-hitting infielder would become great.
“She’s one of those people that just gets it done,” Chidester said. “She doesn’t really overstate things — she just knows what she does well, that she can hit, and she goes in there and does it. She’s confident in herself to go get the job done.”
Romero had seized the starting shortstop position by spring practice of her freshman year, but she was still dealing with a couple of concerns.
She was nervous about how the team would receive her. She had heard stories about players at other schools who struggled to be accepted by their teammates after grabbing a starting position from an established player.
Her worries were unfounded, as two of her fellow starting infielders welcomed her immediately.
“I remember being intimidated to talk or say anything,” Romero said. “But Amy Knapp and Ashley Lane told me, ‘You’re the leader on the field — you’re the shortstop — and you need to speak up and be a leader.’ It made me feel really comfortable and feel good about myself.”
After predominantly playing second base before coming to Michigan, Romero also learned how to play shortstop at the collegiate level from Knapp and Lane.
“They were super supportive, and they made the game really fun,” Romero said. “It was really an easy transition. Amy’s one of those players where she’ll put in 110 percent, and she made sure I did as well.”
With her confidence at a high, Sierra’s collegiate career started with a bang. In her second game, she hit her first home run — a grand slam.
It was a sign of things to come.
As a freshman, she started all 64 games, led the team in each major batting statistic, set a Michigan single-season homerun record, earned both of the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Big Ten Player of the Year honors and was named a second-team All-American.
Her second year would only be better, as she increased most of her batting statistics, received first team All-American honors and was once again the Big Ten Player of the Year.
Defensively, she cut her errors to almost half of what they were as a freshman.
And her junior season — last year — saw even fewer errors and an improved fielding percentage, while she continued to excel at the plate.
The team also experienced the most success of her career, finishing as runner-up to Florida after a closely contested World Series.
Now in the final stretch of her career, Romero is the type of mentor to her teammates that Knapp and Lane once were for her.
She’s also gone from the intimidated to the intimidator.
Like Falk, freshman infielder Faith Canfield remembers being scared by the thought of playing with someone as good as Romero. It turned out that getting to know the second baseman — Romero switched to second base between her sophomore and junior years — was easier than she thought.
“She’s just like everyone else,” Canfield said. “She is one of the hardest-working (players). She has come to all the freshmen — she’s there to pick us up, and is doing a good job teaching us the ropes. She’s just an amazing player to play with and definitely a huge role model.”
Canfield said the moral support provided by Romero is especially comforting and shows what type of leader she is.
“They threw me in at first (in) the last inning of a game, and I dropped the ball,” Canfield said. “I walked over (to second base) and did a frustrated sigh, and (Romero) goes, ‘What’s wrong?’ I was like, ‘Just should’ve caught that.’ She said, ‘We’re all going to mess up. Everything’s all right. Don’t stress yourself.’ ”
And while Romero clearly has a large impact on her younger teammates, her fellow captains Kelly Christner and Olivia Richvalsky are evidence that Romero’s influence spreads beyond just the underclassmen.
“You can go up to her if you need advice, softball-wise or anything else,” Christner said. “So I think just having that connection with her is good.
“She’s very similar to Hutch. They both just have that presence. They’re kind of intimidating, but once you get to know them, they’re completely down to earth, easy to talk to, easy to go to for anything, very honest people.”
Richvalsky, Romero’s roommate and close friend, feels a similar way.
“If you ever need someone to have your back, Sierra is who I go to,” Richvalsky said. “She’s loyal and honest. I admire her ability to play through any type of struggles. Injuries, mental blocks, she prevails. That’s why I’ve always looked up to her, even being a peer.”
On Feb. 26, the Romero family gathered in Palm Springs, Calif., to watch Sierra take on her little sister, Sydney, and the Oklahoma Sooners in the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic.
The siblings, three years apart in age, briefly played together in recreational ball as youngsters and later shared Vista Murrieta High School’s infield for one year. But facing each other wasn’t difficult.
“Of course, I wanted to win, and she wanted to win,” Sierra said. “But we were more excited to see each other.”
In fact, part of the reason Sydney was wearing crimson and cream instead of maize and blue was because of Sierra’s advice. Sierra didn’t pressure Sydney to join her in Ann Arbor.
“I know I love Michigan, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to,” Sierra said. “So I just told her, ‘You have to go where you’re going to be happy for four years, because I’m only going to be (at Michigan) for one.’ ”
Sierra’s relationships with Sydney and her two other siblings have always been positive.
Her brother Michael plays baseball and idolizes his softball-playing sisters, especially Sierra. He says all the time that he wants to play baseball at Michigan because she went there.
Michigan emerged with a 16-9 victory against Oklahoma, and when the two teams met for postgame handshakes, Sierra and Sydney embraced before continuing down the line.
As Romero’s career comes to its close, Hutchins contemplates what her star player’s legacy will be.
Though the coach mentions it will be hard to overlook Romero’s personal accomplishments, she believes how Romero will be remembered will depend on how she has affected those around her.
“She’s a typical kid who is very consumed with her game,” Hutchins said. “She’s always been a good teammate, but learning how to be consumed with her teammates’ game, that’s something that I think she’s learned and really embraced.”
Romero has similar thoughts to her coach.
“I think a great player is somebody who can bring everyone else to their level,” she said. “A good player is a good player, and they’re going to continue to do well, but if you’re able to do well and also bring everyone else around you to that level and make them better, then that just puts you toward the top.”
And though she has achieved most of her goals throughout life, from playing for the nation’s most prestigious travel ball team to earning a scholarship from Michigan, Romero thinks that she will never be done improving as a leader and influencing those around her.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to be satisfied with the way that I lead,” she said. “There’s always something you can learn or do better at. I don’t think I’m ever going to stop fully learning how to be the best I can be.”
She will finish as the school’s all-time leader in home runs, RBI, walks and runs, and barring an extended slump, as its all-time leader in batting and slugging percentage as well.
But she doesn’t want that to be her legacy.
She may even help complete the team’s run to a national championship, but she doesn’t want that to define her either.
Maybe the legacy of Sierra Romero won’t show in her first game or in her last game, but rather in the way her leadership is carried on by her teammates in the seasons to come. Maybe it will show in the influence she has on her siblings and in the dreams of many young fans who clamor for autographs before and after games, all wanting to be the next No. 32.
It seems odd that perhaps the greatest statistical hitter in team history will not be best known for her numbers.
But, then again, maybe that’s the point.