In 35 years at the helm of the Michigan softball program, coach Carol Hutchins has seen more than a few senior classes come and go.
Her program challenges all players to meet a specific set of expectations, but the task of leadership falls particularly on the seniors’ shoulders. This season, seniors Faith Canfield, Natalie Peters, Alex Sobczak, Katie Alexander and Mackenzie Nemitz have taken those expectations to an entirely new level.
When the team returned to campus from summer break in the fall, the group called for a meeting.
“(The seniors) made their statement,” Hutchins said. “They wanted this team to be different than the last couple teams. They wrote out their own gameplan for that, including the young kids who were going to come in and help this program and made sure everybody stayed on page.”
They laid out a blueprint and, five months later, stuck to it during a slow start to the season. Now, they’re reaping the benefits.
Over the weekend, senior leadership was on full display as the Wolverines triumphed over Illinois, Wisconsin and three-time Big Ten Tournament defending champion Minnesota to capture the program’s first conference title since 2015.
At the plate, the unit led by example. The seniors paced the offense in Michigan’s three games, combining for 17 hits across 47 at-bats — good for a batting average of .362. Canfield led the charge with a .583 clip in 12 plate appearances at the lineup’s leadoff spot, followed by a pair of .500 marks from Peters (5-for-10) and Alexander (3-for-6).
“The seniors are driving the bus,” Hutchins said on April 23. “It’s definitely, as a coach, what you want. I don’t want to drive the bus — I can’t drive the bus. I can only make so much happen, and they are making it happen. I’ve just got to stay out of the way at this point.”
In the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals, the top-seeded Wolverines found themselves deadlocked with No. 9 seed Illinois in extra innings. While a potential upset brewed, the team looked to its senior class. There, it saw no signs of uneasiness, let alone even the slightest shade of doubt.
Before the tournament, freshman left fielder Lexie Blair had never played on such a stage. While she stood in the on-deck circle waiting to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning, Canfield and Nemitz approached her.
“I had (Nemitz) telling me ‘Just be you,’ and (Canfield) was giving me a little pep talk,” Blair said. “Little things like that really help you. Knowing that the team is really on your side … I really rely on my teammates.”
Feeling the comfort of teammates by her side, Blair stepped up to the plate and clubbed the second pitch she saw over the right-center field wall, sending Michigan to the semifinals.
Blair isn’t the only freshman who has benefitted from the senior class. All three of the Wolverines’ pitchers are underclassmen, so freshman right-hander Alex Storako has grown close with senior position players herself.
“These seniors have made a really big impact on the entire team as role models,” Storako said. “They’ve led as great examples for us freshmen and they’ve set the bar really high for us. They’ve led us as a strong group as a whole, so it’s been really exciting.”
Though the senior class has posted impressive numbers all season, their personalities are what has allowed them to take the reins of this team. The group loves to have fun but knows it’s equally important to handle matters with care and sincerity.
Earlier this season, Hutchins reminded Canfield and Peters about an instance in 2016 when a Canfield home run was called back because Peters left her base early. Before Hutchins could finish telling the story, Canfield cut her off.
“Too soon,” Canfield joked, and the trio shared a laugh.
Moments like those remind the team to stop and smell the roses. The seniors can’t stop the sand from tumbling through the hourglass, but they sure can make the most of the time they have left. So far, they’ve done exactly that.
“This year’s team has been extremely player-driven, and I would say very much led by our senior class,” Hutchins said. “Our seniors have been outstanding all year from the moment they got back to campus in late August.”
“I’ll go as far to say as they’re one of our best senior classes.”