With the Michigan softball team, an opportunity is like a shooting star.
A chance can come for any player at any time, but can disappear just as quickly if you miss it.
Though the team is loaded with upperclassmen, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins has never been wedded to age as a determining factor in terms of playing time.
With the offense sputtering mightily, and Hutchins’ patience waning with every poor at bat with runners in scoring position, she decided to shake up the lineup last weekend against Wisconsin. An opportunity streaked across the sky for anyone to seize.
Freshman infielder Madison Uden didn’t miss it.
In her first career start last Saturday in Madison, Uden collected two hits and three RBIs in the Wolverines’ 10-2 win. She hasn’t left the lineup since. Uden entered the program as a highly touted recruit, but with the experience and talent in the middle infield of senior shortstop Abby Ramirez and sophomore second baseman Faith Canfield, she had to wait her turn.
At the beginning of the season, Hutchins called Uden “our shortstop in waiting” and lamented the difficulties of adjusting to the speed of the college game.
“The game doesn’t know if you’re a freshman or a senior,” Hutchins said at the season-opening press conference. “When you get the opportunity to be out there, you need to be ready to go, and not ‘Oh, I’m a freshman.’ To push everyone everyday, period — that’s what we want our freshmen to do.”
And when Uden’s opportunity came, she was ready. In her five starts — as the designated player, in order to keep Ramirez and Canfield in the lineup — Uden is hitting .333 with five RBIs.
“I’m just looking for people to get hits, hit the ball hard,” Hutchins said. “She’s done that, she’s a good hitter. I like (her in the lineup).”
This weekend, against Indiana — and against Uden’s older sister, Taylor, no less — Uden proved why Hutchins has entrusted her with a starting spot late in the season. Saturday, with two outs in the bottom of the third inning, Uden stepped into the box with a runner on first. She sat on an 0-1 pitch, and hit a shot to right-centerfield that probably still hasn’t landed. Her home run, which extended the Wolverines’ lead to 5-0, showed the depth Uden has provided to the lineup since her emergence.
Hutchins recognizes the benefits of playing Uden — and other underclassmen for that matter — in terms of the team’s future. They will graduate three cogs in the lineup this season, all three having been major contributors to the program since their freshman seasons. She knows giving Uden experience, in addition to the other underclassmen, will be valuable down the road.
“I like the sophomores — I’ve liked Sobczak and Katie (Alexander), Katie kind of comes and goes,” Hutchins said. “They’re also our future, the more we can get them into play, the better. I play for the now, but the more experience we can get them, the better.”
In Uden’s case, though, she may be the future and the present. She will, almost unquestionably, be the starting shortstop come opening day next year. But that’s not why she’s in the lineup now. Hutchins does “play for the now” — the freshman class has combined to start just 16 games all year, far fewer than the freshman classes in recent history.
And right now, Uden has provided a necessary boost to a previously lethargic offense. In the five games she has started, the team has averaged seven runs per game and has won all five.
“I am pleased with Uden,” Hutchins said. “She’s a hitter.”
Not a freshman, not a piece for the future, not good depth.