Michigan softball is back.
After a No. 19 preseason ranking, a second straight first-round loss to Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament and the graduation of key power hitter Tera Blanco, the Michigan softball program seems to be at a crux. But stirrings of changes haven’t fazed the Wolverines, who already hit the ground running in the fall — fast.
Michigan competed in two exhibition series this fall: the annual Traverse City College Tournament Sept. 29-30 and the home-and-home fall series in October against the Spartans. In Traverse City, the Wolverines played Central Michigan, Detroit Mercy and Western Michigan in a round-robin tournament with a championship and consolation game. The team also scrimmaged Detroit Mercy on Oct. 18 in Ann Arbor.
Though the exhibitions, by nature, didn’t yield reported scores or statistics, fall ball provided key insights into Michigan’s coming season. These three main takeaways from fall ball may be pivotal in defining the team's potential this season.
1. The team will bring in a third pitcher this season.
Last year, sophomore pitcher Meghan Beaubien emerged as a star, pitching three individual no-hitters and leading the nation in wins.
Beaubien shared primary pitching time with Blanco, a then-senior. By the end of the season, with only two main pitching options, Beaubien was gassed. She held a 3.99 ERA in the last four games compared to an overall season ERA of 1.16.
Michigan coach Carol Hutchins’ solution? Add a third primary pitcher into the rotation.
“We need a really good, confident pitcher,” Hutchins said Tuesday at the team's media day. “If we don’t have to give Meghan the ball as many innings, and you give it to somebody else, it forces teams to prepare for more than one look and it helps keep her fresher longer.”
Adding a third viable pitching option to supplement Beaubien and sophomore pitcher Sara Schaefer does just that. And freshman Alex Storako, a two-time Illinois All-State First Team player, seems to fit the role. Storako specializes in spin-pitching, in contrast to Beaubien’s more power-driven pitching. Splitting time between Beaubien and Storako, in addition to Schaefer’s contributions, will force teams to prepare for diverse pitching styles.
“(Beaubien) throws it hard and she can bend it, but she doesn’t really spin it,” Hutchins said. “I like the fact that they’re so different.”
After Beaubien sat out of fall ball with an injury, Storako got time in the circle at the college level and is poised to be a strong step-up pitcher going into the regular season.
“We have our sights set on Alex Storako,” Hutchins said. “We think she’s going to come in and give us some innings — some really good innings.”
2. A veteran infield will set the team chemistry for younger talent.
The Wolverines’ pitching situation may be in flux, but the Michigan infield is locked in. With junior Madison Uden at third base, sophomore Natalia Rodriguez at shortstop, senior Faith Canfield at second base and multiple strong first base contenders, infield chemistry shouldn't be a problem.
“It’s really nice having Natalia and Faith there cause, you know, you already know how they play, what their range is, and how they honestly play, to the nitty-gritty of how they throw the ball to you,” Uden said. “It’s huge because it’s consistent and you know what to expect and it just makes you that much tighter in your defense and that much better.”
That chemistry will set an example for younger players as they integrate into the program. Additionally, players hope the success and team chemistry from fall ball will set a pace for the entire team to follow during the regular season. The games this fall solidified the upperclassmen, and subsequently, the team’s, tempo heading into the season.
“I think you look to your upperclassmen always to set the tone and what kind of team they’re going to have and what kind of standards they’re going to hold,” Hutchins said. “My upperclassmen and particularly my seniors have been really rock solid all year, holding high standards and showing up to work hard every day.”
3. Rankings, former losses and impressions won’t affect the Wolverines’ play.
Among pitching changes, established team chemistry and freshman integration, the biggest takeaway from fall ball is that Michigan softball is fighting. The Wolverines may have received a No. 19 preseason ranking. They may bat with a traditional consistency style that some teams deem dated. They may have suffered early tournament exits at the hands of in-state rivals. But Michigan has built a culture — one that has sustained.
“We came out tough against Michigan State even though it’s just fall ball, and I think we really handed it to them,” Uden said. “The past few years, it’s been a grind for us against them in the postseason, but I think we came out hot this year and that’s how it’s going to continue to be.”
Beaubien agrees, saying that rankings don’t affect the team, whose focus is on its performance and play — a Hutchins philosophy.
“I expect the same thing every year,” Hutchins said. “In every aspect of our program, we are gearing toward a chance to be a World Series contender. That’s the expectation of our program.”