Just over a year ago, Taylor Bump had a major decision to make.
During the 2021 season, the then-senior third baseman was the third bat on a dominant Michigan lineup. She posted a 1.036 on-base plus slugging percentage and helped lead the Wolverines to the regular season Big Ten title.
Michigan headed into that postseason with confidence, ready to get out of an NCAA Regional for the first time since 2015. But with two consecutive losses to an arguably underseeded Washington, that hope once again evaporated.
The goal that Bump and the Wolverines had been working for had slipped out of their grasp once again. But Bump’s time in Ann Arbor didn’t have to end that way. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA granted Bump and other athletes an extra year of eligibility. She could come back for one more year — for one more chance to reach that elusive objective.
But it wasn’t an easy decision.
“I spent so much time mentally preparing to be done with college softball,” Bump said.
For months, she agonized over the choice. Michigan coach Carol Hutchins allowed her to make the decision entirely on her own, a sign of their mutual respect cultivated over four long years in the program. And so, entirely on her own, Bump came to a decision.
“In my heart, I felt like I wasn’t done and I wasn’t ready to hang up my cleats yet,” Bump said. “That’s what brought me back.”
So Bump prepared for another season, another chance to seize the goal that had eluded her for four long years.
The Michigan softball team had no shortage of confidence entering the 2022 season. For the first time since 2019, the team would play a complete schedule and have a true chance to prove to the NCAA that it deserved to host a regional.
The Wolverines also returned an awful lot of talent. With both aces returning in fifth-year senior left-hander Meghan Beaubien and senior right-hander Alex Storako, the pitching seemed destined for dominance just like seasons past. And with reigning Big Ten Player of the Year and senior outfielder Lexie Blair returning along with Bump, the bats were set to be potent as well.
From the very first practice, Bump’s expectations of Michigan were as high as anyone else’s. But although the initial on-field product did not live up to these lofty expectations, Bump’s conviction — her belief in her team’s potential — never wavered.
The Wolverines picked up some quality wins in the early-season tournaments, but they also did not look like dominant Michigan teams of the past. The beginning of the Big Ten schedule exposed these shortcomings even further. After dropping a doubleheader to Nebraska and losing their first two games to Northwestern, the Wolverines sat at 0-4 in conference play.
The goal of getting out of an NCAA Regional seemed almost out of reach already.
Bump was struggling as well. She batted .181 after the first 33 games, a far cry from her .325 mark just a year before. She was in the depths of a hitting slump.
But even at the bottom of that slump, Bump remained vocal. She was a beacon of confidence even when many in the team lacked that critical belief in themselves.
“Your energy is what carries you through the toughest times,” Bump said. “You have the option to either put your head down and be upset about what’s going on, or you can choose to lead the rest of the team.”
Instead of focusing on her own shortcomings, Bump instead chose to lift her fellow teammates up. She remained a positive force in the dugout and her confidence in Michigan shone through the entire way.
When most players encounter a slump of this magnitude, self-doubt tends to creep in. But Bump remained as self-assured as ever, even in the face of outside adversity. That outside pressure only increased compared to past seasons.
As softball has grown in popularity as a sport, so has its media footprint. 2019 brought a 40% increase in viewership, causing the ESPN family of networks to greatly increase its coverage. And with that coverage came judgemental eyes.
“Hutch always says ‘what really matters are the people that are on our team,’ ” Bump said. “And if you get caught up in what other people have to say that aren’t involved, it’s just putting more focus on things that don’t necessarily matter.”
In the face of some negative coverage, Bump — and the rest of the Wolverines — continued to focus on one thing: themselves. Bump remained steadfast in her belief in Michigan and, most importantly, what it was capable of.
Those abilities soon showed through. In the last game of the series against Northwestern on April 3, Michigan finally notched a Big Ten win. Bump tallied two doubles and two RBIs as the Wolverines coasted to a dominant 8-3 victory against one of the conference’s premier teams. But Michigan was still 1-4 in the Big Ten, and was not even guaranteed an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
But as the weeks went on, the sentiment that the team wouldn’t get a bid changed. The Wolverines began to hit at a much higher clip, winning every series they played in the process. Those wins included outings against Ohio State and Wisconsin, some of their strongest conference opponents remaining.
At the forefront of the team’s resurgence was Taylor Bump.
Bump found her form and was the catalyst for Michigan’s offensive explosions. From the Northwestern game until the end of the regular season, Bump batted .309, complete with seven doubles and four home runs. And in late-inning situations, Bump often came in clutch, keeping Michigan on track.
Against Maryland, her sacrifice bunt led the Wolverines to an eventual win. Later in that same series, she kicked off an explosive first inning in which she hit a two-run double and scored herself. On top of that, a seventh-inning triple against the Buckeyes walked the game off in the Wolverine’s favor to secure the overall series win.
“I think that we’re playing some of our best ball,” Bump said. “And I think that goes to show that when there’s good energy and good vibes and there’s a lot of laughing and smiling going on, that’s when softball is at its easiest.”
Even as her bat exploded in clutch moments, Bump stuck to her ideals. She still led the infield and her excitement still kept her teammates engaged and enthusiastic. In fact, Bump felt that her continuing leadership was critical to her own resurgence.
“I think it’s what saved me a little bit from going further down that hole,” Bump said. “… Everyone deserves respect and good energy, even if they’re not performing their best and that’s something I recognized.”
With their sweep against Wisconsin in the final week of the regular season, the Wolverines slid into the last bye slot of the Big Ten tournament. It was there in East Lansing, at the Big Ten Tournament, that Taylor Bump truly thrived. After a dominant win over Maryland, Michigan was slated for a rematch with Northwestern, the tournament’s top-seeded team.
With lefty ace Danielle Williams taking the circle for the Wildcats, every hit would be a struggle for the Wolverines. Michigan only managed a single hit before the seventh inning and entered the last frame down 1-0.
With two outs and a runner on second, Taylor Bump stepped up to the plate. And with one swing, she not only hit a game-winning two-run bomb, but also showed exactly what unshakeable self-confidence has done for her softball career. Bump had the same self-assurance when she was stepping to the plate at the depths of her slump as she did at the peaks of her clutch hitting. Once she broke through, the results spoke for themselves.
“We’ve been taking punches all year, and we’ve gotten pretty good at punching back,” Bump said.
But in the tournament final against Nebraska, shades of an earlier Michigan — and an earlier-season Bump — returned. Against the Cornhuskers, hits were nowhere to be found, and the Wolverines’ best chance for a comeback was thwarted by a questionable tag call. But even as Michigan lost its chance for a Big Ten Championship title, Bump remains unflinchingly confident in herself, and her team.
“Losing that game is going to be something we’re going to hold on to for a while,” Bump said. “It’s going to carry us through the postseason.”
The Wolverines are headed to Orlando to duke it out at the UCF-hosted regional, just hours from Bump’s hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida. Once again, the goal that has evaded her for her entire career lies tantalizingly close. And even amid the failures of Michigan teams past, Bump is convinced that this is the year.
“If you don’t believe in Michigan, I don’t know what to tell you,” Bump said on April 8. “We’re gonna come out. And we’re gonna come out on top.”
And with the strength of her conviction — and the confidence that has carried her there — it’s hard to doubt her assessment.