On March 25, the Michigan softball team seemed to be on its way to a routine victory over Northwestern. Fifth-year senior right-hander Sara Driesenga was exuding confidence in the circle, senior second baseman Sierra Romero extended her hitting streak, and freshman catcher Alex Sobczak continued to show maturity behind the plate.
Then, the facade came off in the fourth inning. Sobczak struggled to keep balls in the dirt from going behind her, Driesenga gave hitters free passes to first base, and a Romero error allowed the Wildcats to score two runs.
As Michigan withered, the Wildcats pounced, turning a 7-2 deficit into a 13-12 win. It stunned the Alumni Field crowd and rendered the Michigan alumni band quiet. The Wolverines collapsed. The No. 2 ranked team in the country was suddenly 0-1 in conference play. They handed a victory to Northwestern as one day of Big Ten softball left them in last place.
“We just had a meltdown,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “They got momentum going their way. I thought we didn’t react well in any parts of our game. We had wild pitches, free bases and errors.”
The following Saturday and Sunday brought two Wolverine wins, but did little to reassure observers of Michigan’s preeminence. The Wolverines looked vulnerable in what promised to be a stronger conference this year, with the continuing emergence of No. 22 Minnesota, No. 24 Ohio State, Indiana and Nebraska.
One week later, the equation could not be more different. In three commanding wins over the Hoosiers, the Wolverines asserted their dominance over one of the top teams in the conference. Hutchins is now the winningest coach in NCAA softball history and heads a team that is starting to look worthy of her stature.
Questions surrounded Michigan heading into Bloomington, but by the time the Wolverines returned home to Ann Arbor, they were answered. They looked the part once again, both in the circle and at the plate, in the matter of one week.
Romero asserted her place as the nation’s best player, hitting .875 with three homers and her first Big Ten Player of the Week honor of the season in her ever-growing trophy haul.
And even outside of Romero, Michigan’s attack was well-rounded. Junior third baseman Lindsay Montemarano continued her hot streak, junior left fielder Kelly Christner worked her way out of her slump and senior centerfielder Sierra Lawrence vaulted herself into the top spot of the program’s all-time stolen base list.
“We’re not afraid to swing the bat. We’ve worked on it so much, … we all want to be great at it,” Romero said.
Junior right-hander Megan Betsa, who failed to record a single out but gave up four runs in the conference opener, cruised in Saturday’s 8-0 win with nine strikeouts for her fourth complete-game shutout of the season. Driesenga, exhausted by the end of last Friday’s outing against Northwestern, looked rejuvenated, registering zero walks in nine innings of action, as she improved to 13-0 on the year.
With Betsa and Driesenga mowing down Hoosier hitters with ease, Sobczak’s successful return behind the plate may prove the most positive development going forward.
Against Northwestern, Sobczak sat the series’ final two games, left to ponder the difficulties that come with playing what Hutchins routinely calls softball’s most difficult position. But in Bloomington, Sobczak regained her starting spot, played solid defense, notched two hits and gained back the trust that Hutchins endowed in her to start the season.
With the catcher position in increasingly sound hands, Michigan is looking devoid of any weaknesses. From Hutchins to her players, the Wolverines outplayed Indiana and put their faults behind them. They made their coach the sport’s all-time winningest and sent an ominous warning to their Big Ten rivals that this conference is firmly in their control.