With Michigan softball set to get its 2022 season underway this weekend, one thing stands out: the long-awaited return of non-conference play.
After a regular season of COVID-induced Big Ten exclusivity, the Wolverines will finally see new opponents.
“It’s super exciting, especially for (fifth-year left-hander) Meghan (Beaubien) and I,” senior right-hander Alex Storako said. “We’ve obviously seen these (Big Ten) teams for so long now, and a lot of the same consistent kind of lineups … so just being able to see different kinds of hitters, I think it really tests us on all kinds of levels.”
The arrival of non-conference play, however, is much more than just a return to business as usual. The unraveling of last postseason made that clear.
With the NCAA Selection Committee still reliant on the Ratings Power Index (RPI) system to evaluate teams for tournament placement, the conference-only bodies of work presented by Michigan and other Big Ten programs simply couldn’t stack up against teams that played full schedules. As a result, the Wolverines had to face No. 5 Washington in a true road matchup to get through the first weekend — despite being the reigning Big Ten champs and winning 15 of their last 16 games.
Michigan coach Carol Hutchins put the program’s frustration into words at the time, saying the committee “absolutely did not do a very good job” and that “they disrespected our entire conference.”
The Wolverines were eliminated by the Huskies a few days later.
This season, Michigan can build a resume that leaves less doubt when it comes to their capabilities.
“At times, (last season) kind of felt a little bit repetitive,” senior outfielder Lexie Blair said. “I think it’s just nice to finally be able to travel outside of the midwest and get to see those teams that we don’t typically get to see, just a new arena of competition.”
Despite these changes, the focus remains simple and prioritized — a clear quality of a well-established program with long term success. At its core, it doesn’t sound all that different than last year, or any other year.
“We still have the same goals,” Beaubien said. “We still want to win every game. We still want to get better every game. I think your mind should be in the same place no matter who you’re playing or what schedule you’re playing.”
Luckily for the Wolverines, the details of their non-conference slate are just as consistent as their mindset going into them.
Michigan’s season will start with the USF Tournament, as it has done every year (excluding last) since 2013. Florida, a practical non-conference rival, awaits the Wolverines, and hopes to avenge last meeting in 2020, when Michigan ended a Gators win streak that spanned the previous five meetings.
But the Wolverines don’t need all of that history to be motivated. At this point, with so much preseason training under their belt, they’re just ready to start.
“First and foremost, I’m just excited not to be playing against my own teammates,” Blair said. “I’m looking forward to seeing some great competition out in Florida the first couple of weekends and I’m really just excited to see the depth and what we bring from this team.”
The recent paradigm of non-conference play in the softball world deservingly brings forth added attention, but Michigan shrugs it off with balance. There is an acknowledgement of the abnormalities created last season, and an equal desire to keep those abnormalities from affecting any other season. Things are normal for scheduling purposes, so the Wolverines are treating their schedule that way.
“It’s what we do every year except last year,” Hutchins said. “So I’m not making much more of last year’s perceptions. I don’t care what anybody’s perception is, you got to win on the field and the bottom line is when you get to the regional you got to win. You can talk about where you think you should be seeded and where you go, but ultimately, we can’t dwell on that. We don’t control it.
“We have to control what we control. And we control how we play.”
After an offseason cooped inside Oosterbaan Field House, Michigan at last can get out and do so.