It’s never a good sign when a team loses the reigning conference player of the year.
That’s exactly what happened to the No. 22 Michigan softball team in its first game against No. 9 Northwestern on Apr. 1. Senior outfielder Lexie Blair crashed into the outfield fence, making an acrobatic catch to prevent the Wildcats from winning the game. Blair was helped off the field and seen on crutches after the game and hasn’t played since.
Blair’s absence could not have come at a worse time; since her injury, the Wolverines are a modest 4-3. They lost the series to Northwestern, and dropped their most recent game to Penn State at home to fall back under .500 in conference play. Though they still carry a winning record in that stretch, they are not playing well enough to contend in the conference race.
“You have to adjust when you lose a person who’s in the lineup everyday,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said after the team’s win over Michigan State. “We continue to adjust.”
To adjust, two players are stepping into larger roles. Previously, freshman outfielder Ellie Sieler and junior outfielder Audrey LeClair platooned for the final starting outfield slot. In Blair’s absence, they’re both everyday starters.
Neither is expected to singlehandedly replicate Blair’s production, nor are they likely to, but they’ve both performed well nonetheless. Sieler is a defensive stalwart, constantly making acrobatic catches in the outfield. LeClair has a hit in all but one game since Blair’s injury, including a walk-off single to defeat the Nittany Lions.
“(LeClair) is one of our leaders, and she has some great at-bats for us,” Hutchins said after the walk-off. “I give her credit for coming in and stepping up when we needed it.”
But despite their best efforts, Sieler and LeClair can’t replicate the on-field experience and leadership that Blair brings to the table. Typically, Blair sets an example at the plate with her hitting and commands the outfield from center field. In a time where Michigan needs its veteran leadership to pull itself out of a skid, it’s devastating to lose such a presence.
“The upperclassmen, the juniors and seniors, we count on them,” Hutchins said last Wednesday. “Right now, we’re in a bunker, and we need to fight our way out of it. … They need to be all in each game.”
For Blair, it’s difficult to be “all in” when she isn’t even in the game.
But fortunately for the Wolverines, Blair’s absence may end soon.
“She’s off her crutches and the swelling is going down,” Michigan associate head coach Bonnie Tholl said on Apr. 8. “… I think you can expect to see Lexie Blair back in the lineup in the near future.”
If Tholl’s words ring true, they will bring a much-needed boost in terms of the Wolverines’ leadership. Beyond providing consistency at the top of the order, Blair carries the respect and admiration of all of her teammates. When she sets that good example, everyone else will follow.
As Michigan leans on its seniors to lead it back from yet another misstep this season, Blair needs to be the piece that finally brings it all together.
But first, she just needs to return to the field.