The road to Michigan’s potential third-straight Women’s College Softball World Series begins in the same place it has since 2013.
The sixth-ranked Wolverines will play five games in three days at the USF Wilson-Demarini Tournament in Tampa Bay, Fla., starting with back-to-back afternoon contests against Delaware and Illinois State on Friday.
But Saturday poses the toughest matchups for Michigan, as it opens the day with a showdown against No. 4 Florida, followed by an evening affair with No. 25 South Florida.
The Gators defeated the Wolverines in game three of the 2015 championship, leaving Michigan coach Carol Hutchins just short of her program’s first title since 2005. Last year’s season-opening tournament saw Florida tear through that wound viciously with an 8-0 mercy-rule victory.
Despite the history with the Gators, senior right-hander Megan Betsa refuses to treat Saturday’s matchup any differently than she would against another opponent.
“I’m sure everyone is going to tell you the same thing: it doesn’t really matter who we’re playing,” Betsa said. “It’s the first weekend, so we’re just going to learn how to go out there and be better. It doesn’t really matter if we’re playing Florida.”
In the same afternoon of the Florida beatdown last year, the Wolverines turned around to wallop USF, 11-2, in five innings. Saturday gives Michigan another chance at those opponents, especially — admittedly or not — at the Gators.
While the warm weather and quality competition are benefits of early-season tournaments, they do pose two challenges for the Wolverines: fatigue and managing the pitching staff. Playing the weekend’s five games in less than 48 hours forced Hutchins to alter her usual practices.
“Going into this week, we had to be just as concerned with being fresh on the weekend,” Hutchins said. “We have to taper our swings, we have to taper our pitches and really shore our game up and shorten up practice. The first weekend is rough, they’re not in game shape. I can tell you they’ll be sore and tired on Sunday morning.”
This means Betsa — the only established pitcher returning from 2016 — and junior Tera Blanco will share duties in the circle for Michigan, with sophomore Leah Crockett potentially joining them.
Betsa, who posted a 1.98 earned-run average and threw over 200 innings last season, will get the ball Friday in the final opening day of her career. When Blanco gets the opportunity to pitch, her usual spot at first base will likely be taken by junior Aidan Falk. But Hutchins remains firm that the lineup has not been etched in stone.
“I’ll have to see how they look, and I don’t have a set lineup,” Hutchins said. “We’re going to see who gets it done when it matters and go from there. It’s definitely an evolution.”
Even with the collective accolades of Michigan’s senior class — two World Series appearances, three Big Ten titles, two conference Pitcher of the Year awards and an NFCA All-America first team recognition — Hutchins sees the team’s motivation deriving from the fact that 2017 is a new chapter in a storied program’s history.
“This is team 40,” Hutchins said. “We don’t have any championships — they’ve done nothing. What teams 31-39 have done are on our history boards — they have no bearing for team 40. We motivate them with ‘Who are you, and what are you going to accomplish?’ We’re zero and zero.”