As the No. 2 Michigan softball team begins its season this weekend, its outfield will be crucial to its success.
The Wolverines’ outfield will lead the team both on offense and off the field, helping to motivate younger players. All three starting outfielders return from last season’s second-place finish in the Women’s College World Series and look to improve on last season’s performance.
After spending her freshman year on the bench, only getting occasional opportunities to pinch-hit, junior outfielder Kelly Christner flourished in her first year as a starter. She finished second on the team in a variety of categories including home runs, supporting an offense that led the nation with 118.
“My main focus my freshman year was really (on each) pitch,” Christner said. “I came in for pinch-hit at bats, so I really had to focus on every single pitch. Last year my main focus was my confidence, and that really helped me excel to the next level.”
Playing alongside Christner in the outfield will be two seniors, Kelsey Susalla and Sierra Lawrence.
Like Christner, Susalla also thrived in her first year with regular playing time, finishing third on the team in batting average and RBI. Susalla also garnered tremendous praise from Michigan coach Carol Hutchins about her work ethic and dedication.
“(Susalla) didn’t quite get the accolades that (Christner) did, but she was critical to our success,” Hutchins said. “She came from being a walk-on who had (few) at-bats as a freshman and sophomore to our starting outfielder who was on the All-American ballot and All-Big Ten.”
Lawrence is one of just two four-year starters on the roster. Last season, she led the team in stolen bases and played in at least 50 games for the third year in a row. She also was perfect in the field, not making a single error.
Lawrence knows the tools for a successful team, and along with her fellow seasoned outfielders, she aims to assist the younger players, who have just begun their Wolverine softball journeys.
“Me and the upperclassmen, we’ve done great job of coaching the underclassmen and the freshmen we have out there,” Lawrence said. “I think it’s a big role that we all have to step up and do, and we have some freshmen out there who need to do some learning for when I step down or if they need to come in this season.”
Michigan gains two new freshmen in its outfield corps this season, Natalie Peters and Courtney Richardson, who were both named to their all-conference teams in high school.
Hutchins enjoys coaching freshmen because of their commitment to improving and assisting the team.
“Freshmen come every day excited to be here,” Hutchins said. “This freshman class, I’ve loved from the get-go. There’s a lot of them, and they stick together as a group. They’re enthusiastic. I like that pack mentality. They take care of each other.”
Christner explained that the elder players will do whatever it takes to ease the challenging transition of college softball — be it extra batting practice or a simple conversation.
Perhaps because she knows from experience the importance of taking advantage of every opportunity, Christner is always eager to help a young player with extra reps.
“Sometimes you can just see the look on people’s faces that they’re having a bad day and go up and talk to them,” Christner said. “I think it helps them calm their nerves just because they do have a lot on their plate, and we do know what it’s like being a freshman coming into this program.”
When asked about keys to Michigan’s season, Christner believes the team must remain upbeat and enthusiastic. If she is determined to succeed, she feels it will carry over to the other players.
“Whenever I wasn’t confident last year, that’s when I didn’t do well,” Christner said. “If I have energy on the field, I think I bring everyone else up, and then we all have energy.”
Hutchins remains confident in the leadership of her veteran outfielders. The three will give the Wolverines the best opportunity possible to win games.
If Christner and Susalla can repeat their breakout seasons and Lawrence remains consistent, Michigan will have many wins to look forward to in the coming months.