In its first game on Saturday against Notre Dame, the No. 11 Michigan softball team simply was not playing good softball. As the Fighting Irish set the tone with a three-run homer in the top of the first, the Wolverines played an unfortunate game of catch-up that did not come to fruition, stranding 15 runners on base along the way to a 6-4 loss.
But Sunday was a new day for the Michigan.
The Wolverines settled the score, taking a 9-2 victory over the Fighting Irish with a complete team effort. Michigan notched double the amount of hits as Notre Dame with 12 and six, respectively. It saw home runs from four separate players and a 4-for-4 performance at the plate from senior shortstop Abby Ramirez. But in the circle, the efforts of junior right-hander Tera Blanco proved essential in neutralizing Notre Dame’s offensive command.
“In (Sunday’s) game, she pitched with purpose and with confidence,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “I hope that she continues to gain confidence because a confident Tera Blanco, that’s what we’re striving for.”
Blanco emerged as a force to be reckoned with, going 2-0 in the circle and allowing just two runs in 12 innings pitched at the ACC/Big Ten Challenge this weekend in Raleigh, N.C. Despite their sole loss to Notre Dame, the Wolverines (6-3) found their rhythm at the tournament, routing North Carolina State in 12-0 and 11-0 run-rule shutouts on Friday and Saturday, respectively. And after exacting revenge on the Fighting Irish Sunday morning, Michigan finished the weekend with a winning record, 3-1.
The Wolverines covered their bases with both Blanco and senior right-hander Megan Betsa frequently finding the efficiency and consistency they wanted at the mound. The offense also heated up dramatically, launching 10 home runs on the weekend compared to Michigan’s lone homer during its opening weekend.
The Wolverines’ burst of offensive production can be attributed to their main focus in practice last week: timing. In the past week, Michigan focused on relaxing and being loose at practice, as the team was a bit bogged down and tight after opening weekend. It all seemed to pay dividends for the Wolverines.
“We’re really just taking the game and making it simple,” Blanco said. “We’re playing loose and having fun.”
Michigan began its success against the Wolfpack on Friday when senior center fielder Kelly Christner stole the show. Christner blasted a trio of homers — the fourth Wolverine in history to do so in a single game — and set a career-high with seven runs batted in, boosting her batting average to .556 in the process.
“(Christner) was on fire that game,” Hutchins said. “She really resonated with some of the timing things we had done in practice throughout the week.”
Taking advantage of an early lead, Michigan tallied nine runs in the first two innings, and NC State could never recover. Senior third baseman Lindsay Montemarano and junior designated player Aidan Falk each had a home run apiece, with Montemarano’s notably driving in three runs.
Betsa allowed only one hit in the shutout against the Wolfpack, while striking out nine. Sophomore right-hander Leah Crockett made an appearance in the circle for the fifth and final inning, earning two strikeouts of her own. Saturday morning against Notre Dame, Betsa continued with a high strikeout count of 11, but gave up six hits and two walks, including two homers. Michigan’s offensive struggles were highlighted in the bottom of the sixth when the Wolverines had no outs and the bases loaded, yet were unable to capitalize.
Michigan returned to its groove after the frustrating morning, delivering the Wolfpack a similar fate as the previous day with a run-rule shutout. The Wolverines completely controlled the game, tallying 13 hits and scoring 11 runs.
Saturday afternoon, Blanco, who pitched the full game, didn’t let her appearance in the circle stop her from succeeding at the plate. The hurler went 3-for-3 and earned two RBI on the day.
With the bases loaded in the fifth and the score at 7-0 in favor of Michigan, sophomore second baseman Faith Canfield needed only one RBI to secure the run-rule victory. Instead, Canfield crushed a grand slam over the leftfield wall — the first of her career — ending the game, 11-0.
Canfield carried her power hitting into Sunday’s game, delivering a two-run homer in her first at-bat in the top of the first. Falk and sophomore catcher Alex Sobczak hit back-to-back home runs in the second, and junior pinch hitter Amanda Vargas hit the Wolverines’ fourth long ball of the day in the seventh inning to close out the tournament in a satisfying fashion.
Though largely pleased with Michigan’s performance this weekend, Hutchins views Saturday’s loss to Notre Dame as problematic — the Wolverines left runners stranded on third base in six of seven innings — a consequential concern. As a result, upcoming practices will focus on taking advantage of runners in scoring position before next weekend’s Mary Nutter Classic in Palm Springs, Calif.
“We need timely hitting when it appears to be a pressure situation,” Hutchins said. “That will be what we work on this week — just being clutch.”