In its first glimpse of game action since losing to Florida in the Women’s College World Series in June, the No. 2 Michigan softball team picked up right where it left off.
Putting together a string of dominant performances, the Wolverines capitalized on their prowess at the plate and on the mound to win four out of five games at the USF Wilson-Demarini Tournament over the weekend in Tampa, Fla. Their lone loss came against No. 1 Florida.
The opening day was smooth sailing for Michigan (4-1), as it downed both South Carolina and Illinois State in five innings each. With scores of 15-3 and 12-0, respectively, the Wolverines got off to a roaring start, making a strong statement with a pair of run-rule victories to kick off the season.
“We have a really strong lineup, it’s really deep,” said junior shortstop Abby Ramirez. “We have a lot of players who aren’t in the lineup who can contribute as well. But if we just stay focused and keep the one-pitch mentality and not make the game bigger than it is, we should be fine. I’m really excited to see what we do this year.”
Two of Michigan’s All-Americans — senior second baseman Sierra Romero and junior left fielder Kelly Christner — started the team off on the right foot. Romero went 3-for-3 against the Gamecocks, including a grand slam to match a career-best six RBI. Christner followed suit against the Redbirds, batting 3-for-4 with three RBI. In both games, the Wolverines scored in each of their four innings at the plate and nine different players contributed with hits in the twinbill.
In the circle, junior right-hander Megan Betsa and fifth-year senior right-hander Sara Driesenga shut down their opponents. Betsa allowed only one run against the Gamecocks while striking out seven to earn the win. Meanwhile, Driesenga struck out three and partnered up with sophomore right hander Tera Blanco to shut out the Redbirds. Blanco made some extra noise by striking out six of seven batters in her first stint as a full-fledged member of the pitching staff.
“Strikeouts just come naturally to me because I have a lot of spin on my ball and never really rely on velocity. They’ve always been part of my game,” Betsa said. “But we’re all different pitchers. Sara pitches for contact and Tera pitches for both velocity and contact, so it’s just having different tools in our arsenal.”
Blanco got the start for the first game of day two, a highly anticipated rematch against Florida. Despite her strong outing the day before and her 2-for-2 performance at the plate, Blanco was roughed up by the Gators, who scored seven runs — five earned — on seven hits in under three innings of work. At the same time, Florida pitcher Kelly Barnhill neutralized Michigan’s potent offense, allowing just three hits in a five-inning shutout en route to the Gators’ 8-0 run-rule victory.
“We’re not where we need to be, because we didn’t compete in that game in any aspect,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “I was disappointed with our process the entire game because we made it about Florida. If we use it for what it needs to be, which is it’s not acceptable, it can propel us. We don’t need to beat ourselves up; if you don’t play well, anyone can throttle you. Our pitching didn’t set the tone, our offense didn’t help us out and our defense opened up the door a lot, so none of our game was there.
“The good news is we didn’t play well. It’d be one thing if they beat us 8-0 and we had played our best, then I’d be concerned, but we just need to show up to play the game. The game never changes, and the game never knows who’s playing. And we can get a lot better at that and we will.”
Needing to bounce back against South Florida later that day, the Wolverines relied on Betsa, another one of their All-Americans, to lead the charge. Betsa stepped up in the circle and delivered, striking out eight in a complete-game effort to seal Michigan’s 11-2 win. Her shutout bid was spoiled by a two-out, two-run homer in the bottom of the fifth. Betsa exacted a small bit of revenge, though, striking out the final batter to put an exclamation point at the end of a commanding outing.
At the plate, the Wolverines’ offense woke up from its slumber in a hurry, scoring five first-inning runs to make their play against Florida look like an anomaly. Homers flew once again, as senior right fielder Kelsey Susalla and freshman catcher Alex Sobczak joined the party with bombs that cleared the fence with ease. After the Bulls walked two of Michigan’s first three batters, Susalla made them pay, smashing a three-run shot to put the Wolverines up early. That would have been all the scoring Michigan needed, but the Wolverines were just getting started. Four batters later, Sobczak produced a two-run single and launched a rocket of a grand slam to deep left field in the fifth to give her six RBI and put the cherry on top of Michigan’s run-rule win.
“We’re a very potent offense,” Hutchins said. “We’re veteran, we’re experienced, and we’re very contagious — that’s something that we’ve been good at. But we’re also contagious when we’re not hitting, so we can be a little more consistent. We have an offense that we should be able to count on, but we don’t want it to just be we all hit or none of us hit. We need to have consistent production from all parts of the order, because we know not everybody is going to always hit.”
The Wolverines took on Virginia Tech early Sunday morning in their final game of the weekend. Driesenga held down the fort, allowing just three hits and one earned run in five innings in the circle. And the duo of Romero and Christner struck again. In the third, Romero took matters into her own hands with a solo homer to tie the game at 1-1. Two innings later, Christner provided the game-winning RBI single in Michigan’s 3-1 victory.
Even after an opening weekend that saw them outscore opponents 41-14, the Wolverines know there is room to grow. Their strong wins and their disappointing loss provided key learning experiences, and Michigan intends to use both as the season moves on.
“We have a lot of potential, but we have a lot of work to do,” Betsa said. “We need to go into each game with confidence and know that we are good enough to beat anyone.”
The Wolverines may be good enough to beat any team, but only one foe matters most. For Michigan, Florida remains the one that got away.