The 2016 season was the one that got away for the Michigan softball team.
The Wolverines had all the ingredients for success: They were the top-scoring team in the country, had a strong defensive unit, went 21-2 in conference play and won their ninth-straight Big Ten title. But, once again, the coveted Women’s College World Series title eluded them, after they were eliminated by Florida State to cap off a disappointing performance in Oklahoma City.
Part of what made Michigan’s WCWS performance so heartbreaking was that the team’s seniors went to three WCWS in their four years but never took home a championship win. Four of those seniors were core players, including 2016 National Player of the Year Sierra Romero. As a four-year starter, she posted a batting average of at least .450 for three straight years and cemented her place as one of the greatest collegiate softball players of all time.
But the Romero era is over, and for Michigan coach Carol Hutchins, it’s far in the past.
“It’s a huge loss, but I got over it, like, in September,” Hutchins said. “That’s Team 39. My only focus is on Team 40.”
Hutchins — the NCAA’s winningest softball coach — will begin her 33rd season at the helm of the Michigan program, but she has the same expectations and goals that she has every year: to be Big Ten Champions and to reach the World Series.
But a 10th-straight Big Ten title and a WCWS berth isn’t a certainty for No. 6 Michigan. With the loss of six seniors, the Wolverines are younger than they have been in recent years. Michigan has less star power to bail them out, so a balanced lineup will be crucial this season.
While the infield is mostly unchanged from last year, the outfield will be almost completely new, as senior outfielder Kelly Christner is the lone returner. This opening will allow some of the four freshmen Wolverines to see playing time, a unique responsibility for such a historically impressive team.
“You really want your freshmen to come in and not be freshmen,” Hutchins said. “The game doesn’t know if you’re a freshman or a senior.”
To ensure that the freshmen play with the confidence and strength that Hutchins looks for, strong senior leadership and support from Michigan’s four seniors will be imperative.
Christner, senior right-hander Megan Betsa, and senior infielders Abby Ramirez and Lindsay Montemarano are poised to step into those familiar roles.
“We all got a lot of playing time freshman year,” Christner said. “Looking up to the seniors and upperclassmen, that really showed us how to lead a team and how to be a voice on and off the field.”
While Christner was a captain last season, Betsa has mentored junior right-hander Tera Blanco and sophomore right-hander Leah Crockett while she took the fall off with an injury.
With an influx of youth and strong returning talent, the Wolverines have all the pieces to succeed in both the regular and postseason. However, there are still lingering questions determining the future of the season.
A huge question mark for the Wolverines will be whether Christner can return to her form from two seasons ago, which saw her hit 21 home runs. Another question is whether Betsa will return to her top-notch pitching form coming off her injury. Yet another is whether Blanco will demonstrate prowess on the mound as well as the plate, after starting just five games as pitcher last season.
Michigan will begin its season in Florida for the Wilson-Demarini Tournament in the first of five non-conference tournaments the Wolverines will participate in. Michigan will take on teams such as No. 4 Florida, No. 3 Florida State and No. 8 UCLA to begin their journey back to the top of the collegiate softball landscape.
“We’ll see how well Team 40 does as we go through this journey,” Hutchins said. “But we’re excited to get started.”