The Michigan softball team is aware it has big shoes to fill.
Five seniors from last year’s team — each one a key cog in the lineup and a vital presence in the locker room — are gone. A class that coach Carol Hutchins often endorses as one of the best she’s ever had graduated in May, leaving behind sizeable holes.
There’s no blueprint when it comes to potential replacements. Second baseman Faith Canfield was All-Big Ten first team with a .404 batting average, while outfielder Natalie Peters and first baseman Alex Sobczak were members of the All-Big Ten second team. Sobczak and catcher Katie Alexander shared the team lead with 10 home runs, and infielder Mackenzie Nemitz drove in 31 runs while drawing 35 starts as the designated player.
Still, it’s apparent that the current Wolverines firmly believe in the group of players they have. At Tuesday’s Media Day, players spoke with unwavering confidence, seemingly unfazed by the roster turnover.
“Obviously, we had some great, great girls that graduated,” sophomore pitcher Alex Storako said. “But I think being a part of Michigan softball, we’re always going to have key players stepping in. It’s just a matter of getting that chance, and a lot of girls are ready to finally get that chance. We’re all very talented, and I’m very excited to see that all of the pieces finally fit into the puzzle.”
The first piece of the puzzle is putting together a batting order, and with just four starters returning, there are an abundance of open spots.
“We’re going to try to find the best nine that play together,” Hutchins said. “But it’s competitive. And I like that because the competitors are the ones that will win the positions. Competition makes you better.”
As to which players will claim the contested starting roles, Hutchins maintained nothing is set in stone, conceding that a consistent lineup cannot be ironed out until everyone is given ample opportunities in real game play. She noted junior infielder Taylor Bump, senior outfielder Thais Gonzalez, sophomore infielder Morgan Overaitis and freshman infielder Julia Jimenez as several players who have impressed thus far.
“Players that need to step up in their positions have stepped up,” senior third baseman Madison Uden said. “Maybe there was a bit of pressure in the fall, but now it feels good. Where we need to fill gaps, we’re filling those gaps.”
Stepping up in terms of providing offensive production is, then again, only half the task. The leadership voids left by the seniors are also substantial. Uden is the only returning captain, with fellow 2019 captains Canfield and Alexander having graduated.
In response, Hutchins has implemented a new leadership scheme, deviating from the traditional route of naming captains in favor of a more community-oriented alternative.
Throughout the offseason, the team worked with a Navy SEAL program. Upon the program’s completion, SEALs identified the strongest leaders. The group — Bump, Gonzalez, Uden and junior shortstop Natalia Rodriguez — operate under the title of the “leadership council” and meet regularly with Hutchins for debriefing sessions.
“I’ve just kinda stayed with that,” Hutchins said. “I’m not opposed to having captains, but I like having four of them who are more of a collaborative unit and really represent us.”
This communal aspect of leadership Hutchins illustrated will be key for Michigan this season. With a four-player senior class — two of whom were regulars in last season’s lineup — and a predominantly young team, the onus to be a better leader falls on each individual, regardless of class standing.
“My sophomore class, we talk about stepping up a lot more,” sophomore outfielder Lexie Blair said. “(The coaches are) looking to us for our leadership role. The seniors, they’ve also been managing us well. Most of them I’ve seen step out of their comfort zone, stepping up. I’ve seen that with a lot of teammates.”
How well the team can pool together its talent and work collectively to compensate for the lost offensive production and guidance will officially be put to the test when the season kicks off on Feb. 7.
For now, though, the early returns are certainly positive.