Just like the last series against Penn State, this weekend’s series against Rutgers is important for the No. 2 Michigan softball team in its chase for another Big Ten conference title.

But before the Wolverines take on the Scarlet Knights, they will participate in an event that, according to coach Carol Hutchins, should allow her players a glance at the bigger picture outside of softball.

Thursday, Hutchins and her team will host the seventh annual Michigan Softball Academy, a fundraiser aimed at raising money and awareness in the fight against breast cancer, before donning pink in their series opener against Rutgers on Friday.

In exchange for a donation that serves as a registration fee, the event offers participants the chance to learn softball while interacting with coaches and players.

Hutchins was intrigued by the women’s football academies held by former head football coach Lloyd Carr that similarly raised money and awareness for cancer research, and then one day, an exchange at her own summer camp inspired her to start her own fundraiser.

“While the kids were registering, the moms were talking about how cool it would be to go to camp and how they wish they could have gone to softball camp,” Hutchins said. “I said, ‘What would you do if you went to camp?’ They said, ‘We’d run the bases, get to hit on the field and drink wine.’ I said, ‘That sounds like a good camp,’ and that’s the way it was born. We were in at that time with the American Cancer Society, and I said, ‘This would be a great thing to do, and I’d really like to do it,’ and wow, it’s really turned into something.

“The first year we had 84 participants, we raised $20-some-thousand — I forget the exact number — but it was great and very heart-warming. We had a fantastic time. Within a year or two, we were up to $80,000, and the last two years, $125,000 each year. And we’re on pace this year to break it.”

According to the academy’s website, it has already raised over $106,000 in donations.

In previous years, other Michigan coaches such as men’s basketball coach John Beilein and women’s basketball coach Kim Barnes Arico have participated in the event.

And this year, there’s a special twist involving football coach Jim Harbaugh: a home run derby between him and former Michigan football player Rick Leach that stemmed from a challenge Leach issued Harbaugh at his induction into the Pioneer High School Hall of Fame.

“Jim Harbaugh’s wife had already agreed to be the (Honorary Chair), and Rick Leach has been a member of the academy on a couple occasions,” Hutchins said. “I thought it was a fantastic way to get Harbaugh involved, and I of course said we’re going to only do this if we make money on this. So I think we’ve raised $10,000 so far just on the home run derby, and we’re hoping for Harbaugh to get his fundraising going because Leach is beating him. How you win in the academy, whether it’s the home run derby or the academy itself, you win by raising the most money. That’s the name of the game.”

For Hutchins, the event not only raises money and awareness for an important cause, but it also provides her team with a bit of perspective.

“It’s a chance for our kids to step outside of their softball selves and recognize that there’s a bigger picture in the world,” Hutchins said. “We’re really overprivileged. I always tell people I work with overprivileged people — we’re healthy, we’re young and we have our life in front of us.”

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