Seven games this season, fans of the Michigan softball team received cardboard cutouts of a senior Wolverine. It was a day to honor a player and her contributions to the team. They are shown on the scoreboard, applauded during introductions and cheered on by the crowd.
For the four senior starters, it was a day of extra incentive. All eyes in the stands look for a towering home run or dazzling strikeout.
But Michigan’s senior bullpen catcher didn’t get to see the field on the day named after her. Still, Lauren Connell wasn’t upset.
She knew her role, and it wasn’t to dominate the spotlight.
For most Wolverine players, the roles are typical. Get on base, lay down a sacrifice bunt, throw strikes or get ahead in the count. But a group of three seniors fulfill three roles not always noticed during a game.
First there’s Connell, who is the one to bring humor and constructive criticism to her pitchers. Four years after arriving at Michigan following a record-setting high school career, she’s finishing up her fourth year as the team’s bullpen catcher, a position that Michigan coach Carol Hutchins calls the most challenging role on the team.
Next is Olivia Richvalsky. Though she has tallied just two hits in her time as a Wolverine, her role goes beyond her plate performance. It transcends that of the traditional outfielder, as players call the constant pinch-runner the “team mother,” who never shies away from offering a helping hand.
Finally, there’s Mary Sbonek, who has dreamt of playing for the Michigan softball team for years. Once she arrived in Ann Arbor, she tried out and eventually earned a spot as a pinch-runner. Now, she’s in charge of preparing the younger pinch-runners for the future.
“You’re not going to have all Sierra Romeros,” Hutchins said. “You’ve gotta have different types of roles.”
Last weekend, the three seniors played at Alumni Field for the last time in their Big Ten careers. In the final inning, Hutchins substituted Connell, Richvalsky and Sbonek — as a pinch runner — in the game. During the final moments of the regular season, the three received their chance to shine. With her first putout of the season, Richvalsky caught the final out of the game to cement Michigan’s regular-season conference title.
Now, beginning with this weekend’s Big Ten Tournament, these three players will participate in their fourth consecutive postseason with the hope of making one final Women’s College World Series appearance.
If Michigan does make the trip back to Oklahoma City, the role of these three seniors will be tested the most. It will be when a bullpen catcher, a “team mom” and a sliding specialist will put it all on the line.
Because after all they’ve done to reach this moment, they’re ready to rise to the occasion.
Lauren Connell had a distinguished high school career for West Lafayette High School by starting all four years, serving as a team captain in her senior season and playing both catcher and third base.
During her first visit to Michigan, Connell fell in love with Ann Arbor’s atmosphere and the familiar Midwest lifestyle. She learned that Michigan needed a bullpen catcher, and though her time behind the backstop could be limited among a talented roster, it was a chance Connell couldn’t pass up.
“The opportunity to play for such an incredible team, with such a great reputation — this is a team that’s still playing in June — that’s what I (wanted) to do,” Connell said. “As soon as I stepped on campus, I knew that this was where I wanted to spend the next four years of my life.”
Now in her senior season, Connell has fully embraced her role as the bullpen catcher. She loves spending time with pitchers and mentoring them.
It wasn’t always like that, though, especially for a player who led her high school in career home runs and runs scored.
“Going from one of the main players on the team to a bullpen role was a little bit different,” Connell said. “Contributing in a different way than what I was used to, it was a transition, and it’s been a role that I’ve really accepted, and I think I’ve done well in.”
The Wolverines’ pitchers agree with her. Fifth-year senior right-hander Sara Driesenga has spent nearly her entire Michigan career throwing to Connell, who Driesenga said isn’t afraid to tell the pitching staff if they aren’t hitting the zone or if a particular motion isn’t flowing well.
“(Connell) sees the changes in how we’ve (the pitchers) gotten better,” Driesenga said. “She expects us to hit our spots and do all these things which maybe we struggled with more a couple years ago.”
The Wolverines’ roster lists Connell as a catcher. She crouches during practices, catches pitches and warms up starters during games. But because of her daily interactions and constant mentoring, Connell sees it differently.
“I almost consider myself a part of the pitching staff,” Connell said. “I think their successes, I like to take part in them as well … Especially when our pitchers have been doing so well over the past four years. I really feel like I’ve played a part in that.”
For others on the team, Connell’s most important asset may be her humor. Since she seldom sees the field, Connell has found ways to contribute from the dugout.
Connell, Richvalsky and Sbonek each emphasized the importance of the Michigan softball sisterhood. Hutchins frequently speaks about the role of each Wolverine. It is up to each player to simply “do her part” for Michigan.
Connell’s part oftentimes involves telling jokes that can make even the most serious on the team crack a smile.
“Michigan softball… we do well and we have fun,” Connell said. “Not silly, goofy fun, but just having fun and all being together. It’s kinda weird thinking of being funny as a role on the softball team, but I think it helps us just stay in the moment and help us not worry about other things.”
Romero remembered Connell’s humor from when the two first met at freshman orientation.
“She was hilarious, right from the get-go,” Romero said. “You can even ask Hutch.
“Some of the things that come out of her mouth, you’re like … ‘How’d you even think of that?’”
The humor aspect of Connell’s role may be the most enjoyable and perhaps the easiest. What she finds most challenging, however, is separating the relationships built with her pitching staff off the field with her job as the bullpen catcher.
“Sometimes, the pitchers need someone to say ‘Hey, you need to do better at this, that’s not good enough right now,’ ” Connell said. “So it’s kind of difficult for me sometimes to come out of my role as a friend, and really hold them accountable.”
When asked about her favorite experience throughout her four-year career, Connell paused for a moment. Though she didn’t see the field in Game 2 of last season’s Women’s College World Series, she relished her team’s comeback win — even if she didn’t directly contribute to it.
“It was so fun to just see our team will ourselves to victory,” Connell said. “(To) force Game 3, playing in that moment was such a ‘pinch me’ moment for all of us. We were literally living our dreams.”
During games, Olivia Richvalsky can be seen on the basepaths, organizing cheers or mentoring Michigan’s freshmen.
Richvalsky loves working with the new players upon their arrival in Ann Arbor. Whether it is during practice or a game, she loves hearing their questions and assisting them with challenges they confront. She invites them to team meals and other team-wide events.
“I’ll cheer for them like a mom would,” Richvalsky said. “I’ll make signs. I truly share in (their) success.”
Richvalsky spoke of meeting with her two co-captains — Romero and junior outfielder Kelly Christner — to delegate responsibilities. Because Romero and Christner are often on the field during games and giving team-wide orders during practice, it is up to Richvalsky to connect on a more individual-based level with the players.
“Kelly and I might not be so easy on some people so we’ll yell something at them, and they might get a little upset,” Romero said. “And we’ll say, ‘Liv, we need you to go calm them down, we just yelled at them.’”
Added Richvalsky: “Sometimes Kelly can really get onto someone, and I can come back and say ‘Hey, do you know why Kelly said that? Do you know why that instruction makes sense here?’ (I try to) make sure that everyone understands why things are how they are.”
Richvalsky displayed tremendous resilience in coming back from a leg injury and multiple surgeries. Through an intense yearlong rehabilitation process in which she faced both physical, she tirelessly pushed to return and to contribute. Now back to full health, she constantly participates in extra work on the basepaths to prepare herself for game day opportunities.
“Any opportunity that I have out there is so much more rewarding because of what I went through,” Richvalsky said. “It still drives me to work out on off days, go the extra mile to continue to get better because nothing is ever enough.”
Her determination stemmed from her love for her fellow Wolverines, who she tremendously missed during her absence.
And while she acknowledges her role as the “team mom,” she reiterated the sisterhood concept explained by Connell.
“I look at those girls like my little sisters,” Richvalsky said. “I wouldn’t want them to feel like anything other than family.”
While her tenacity and persistence are certainly admirable, perhaps most important is the maternal atmosphere that Richvalsky brings to the Wolverines. She even devotes herself to securing a ride home for every player.
In order to promote team-wide harmony, Richvalsky strives to recognize each player’s learning style. It is her goal to ease the freshmen’s transition to college, and she constantly offers comfort.
“Liv is kind of like the mom,” Romero said. “She keeps everything and everyone under control.”
Added Richvalsky: “I worry about these girls. I want their success more than my own. More than anything else, I want the team’s success. (I want) each of the individual girls to achieve their own goals.”
When Mary Sbonek first arrived at Michigan in the fall of 2012, she aimed to fulfill her life-long dream of playing for the Wolverines. After playing travel-ball in high school, she felt she should at least try out.
Hutchins’ cousin knew one of Sbonek’s relatives, who had mentioned her speed on the basepaths. With Sbonek now on Hutchins’ radar, she first participated in a separate workout away from the team.
Then, she spent two weeks working with Michigan’s players, as a trial period of sorts. These two weeks were filled with uncertainty as Sbonek was unsure of her fate.
“That was nerve-racking,” Sbonek said. “I was still kind of trying to make the team.”
But after some time had passed, Hutchins pulled her aside and told her she had made it. After weeks of hard work and anxiousness, her dream had been realized. She was finally a Wolverine.
Michigan’s players ensured that she would have no trouble integrating with her new teammates, who quickly welcomed her.
”Once you’re on the team, I don’t view anyone differently, if they are a walk-on,” Driesenga said. “All of us are equal members of the team.”
Added Romero: “We’re one big family, and right away, we let them know whenever we’re going out to eat. Whenever we’re going to go do something as a team, they’re brought in right away.”
As a veteran pinch-runner, Sbonek works with sophomore outfielder Nikki Wald, who will be the first off the bench once Sbonek and Richvalsky depart. The drills in practice and open communication have allowed Sbonek and Wald to forge a teacher-to-student connection. This bond led to greater support during the moments when Hutchins called their names and inserted them on the basepaths.
One thing Wald may have difficulty picking up from her mentor is Sbonek’s unique slide at home. It even perplexes Romero, the team’s three-time All-American.
“She slides but then turns over, swipes it with her back hand and it’s a spin move, so that way the catcher can’t tag her,” Romero said. “I could never do that in a million years. I don’t know how she does that.”
Added Sbonek: “(I love) being able to score the runs. I can go faster on the basepaths for my team than the person who is there. That’s why I’m there. So if I can come in and score a run, that’s great.”
Because Sbonek is often the first pinch-runner off the bench, she is also first runner to gauge the arms of the outfielders and the accuracy of the catcher.
It can be tiring to pinch-run. Practices often consist of time spent on the basepaths waiting for commands from the coaching staff. Pinch-runners still need to do hitting and fielding drills with the other members of the team.
With her final season nearing its end, Sbonek hopes to make more memories as enjoyable as last year’s World Series experience.
As three of the oldest players on the team, it is Connell, Richvalsky and Sbonek’s job to organize cheers in the dugout while Michigan is on the field.
The cheers provide another chance for these three role players to add to Michigan’s success.
“Liv, Mary and I do a great job of keeping everyone who’s not in the game cheering for the people on the field,” Connell said. “When the people come off the field and when we’re at bat, to (try) get as loud and crazy as possible.”
And while the on-field players focus on the pitcher in the circle or the batter at the plate, they still recognize the support of their teammates.
“When I’m at second base, and they do one of their cheers, or when the pitcher gets a strikeout, I see them getting into it,” Romero said. “(The cheers) are nice because they take away that stress.”
Each of the 24 Wolverine players are expected to arrive at practice with a desire to perform their specific duty, and Hutchins makes sure to fill her Michigan roster with specialists.
Brandi Virgil, who played from 2010 to 2014, came before Richvalsky and Sbonek. She served as a pinch runner for four years, and once she departed, Sbonek and Richvalsky filled the vacancy. Now, the two work with Wald, the anchor of the pinch- running corps next year.
Former bullpen catcher Becca Garfinkel, who graduated last year, caught pitches alongside Connell throughout her career. This year, Connell crouches in the bullpen next to sophomore Morgan Swift, who looks to take over the reins next season.
It’s a cycle of specialists that will continue, even after Connell, Richvalsky and Sbonek finish their Michigan careers. Just like the graduating members of the starting nine, the pinch-runners and bullpen catcher will be replaced next season. They won’t be filled by a player as clever and humorous as Connell, or as motherly as Richvalsky or as caring and motivated as Sbonek.
Instead, they’ll embrace these duties with their own unique qualities and twists, all while adding their own characteristics to them — just as Connell, Richvalsky and Sbonek did.
Lauren Connell probably won’t hit the walk-off homer to send Michigan to the Women’s College World Series, but she will spend hours preparing and laughing with Driesenga and Betsa in the bullpen during the postseason.
Olivia Richvalsky may not receive the opportunity to bat with the bases loaded and the game on the line, but whoever does will certainly be comforted and prepared by Richvalsky, whether it be a fellow senior or an anxious freshman.
Mary Sbonek will see opportunities on the basepaths in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament. Though these moments may be brief, she will strive to make the most of them, maybe by utilizing her inimitable slide.
When the opportunity comes calling, there’s no doubt these three will tackle the roles Hutchins and the team has outlined for each of them with tenacity — knowing it could be the last time.
“They don’t get a whole lot of opportunity, but they understand the importance of their role,” Hutchins said. “They are great role models for the kids behind them that will end up becoming role players.”