The Wolverines’ season culminated in a pitchers’ duel.
Coming off of a 6-0 victory against Illinois-Chicago, it seemed as though the Michigan softball team’s bats had finally come alive after scoring a total of two runs over their previous three games. Senior utility player Tera Blanco hit her first home run in over a month and drove in her first runs since April 22 against Maryland. Junior centerfielder Natalie Peters and junior catcher Katie Alexander both recorded multi-hit games –– Peters’ first since May 4 and Alexander’s first since April 21. And freshman left-hander Meghan Beaubien nearly tossed a no-hitter, surrendering her first hit in the final inning against the Flames. Even the two errors committed by the Wolverine defense were covered up by the pitching and offense.
However, nothing that came easy against Illinois-Chicago came easy against Notre Dame. This time, there was no room for error.
On Sunday afternoon, Michigan took on the Fighting Irish for the second time at the Lexington Regional. The two teams squared off in the opening game of the Regional which saw Notre Dame defeat the Wolverines 4-1. Unlike before, however, both teams were playing for their postseason lives — having already used up their leeway for losing.
Right-hander Alex Holloway—who gave Michigan trouble on Friday— took the circle again against Beaubien. The two freshman pitchers battled, keeping the game scoreless through five innings—thanks in-part to the stingy defensive play of both teams.
In the top of the second, sophomore outfielder Haley Hoogenraad launched a ball deep to left field. Ranging back towards the warning track, Ally Wester reached up at the wall and made the catch as she robbed Hoogenraad of a home run to keep the game scoreless.
In the bottom half of the inning, third baseman Melissa Rochford led off and drilled a ground ball between Blanco at first base and second baseman Faith Canfield. Canfield ranged to her left and laid out to make a diving stop, throwing out Rochford from her knees.
The two teams struggled offensively through five innings –– threatening but never scoring.
The Wolverines finally broke the scoreless tie in the sixth inning, starting with Canfield drawing a one-out walk. A single to right field by sophomore third baseman Madison Uden advanced Canfield to third base. She crossed home plate on a sacrifice fly from freshman designated player Lou Allan.
Their first lead against Notre Dame in the Regionals didn’t last long.
The Fighting Irish led off the bottom half of the inning with a double. Then Michigan’s defense, which had been shaky in recent weeks, continued its struggles. A pop fly from shortstop Morgan Reed was hit to shallow left field behind freshman shortstop Natalia Rodriguez. Rodriguez ranged backwards and Hoogenraad and Peters sprinted forward, converging in no-man’s land where a lack of communication resulted in the ball dropping between the three players. There were now runners on second and third with no outs.
“Defense has been our strength all year,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins, “and I don’t know where it went. I guess I’ll spend some time trying to figure it out. We’ve done a lot of great things this year, but these last couple of weeks has not been our best ball.”
A sacrifice fly drove in the first run to tie the game, 1-1. And a single by Rochford gave the Fighting Irish a 2-1 lead.
Just as quickly as the Wolverines took the lead, they saw it slip away.
They escaped the inning, though, keeping the deficit to one run— but they now needed to score a run to keep their postseason alive.
Senior right fielder Aidan Falk led off the seventh inning with a double to left field in what was her final at bat for Michigan. Senior utility player Nikki Wald was called out of the box on a sacrifice bunt attempt, and Peters flew out to the shortstop in foul territory. With their backs against the wall, one out away from going home, Blanco stepped up to the plate.
For the Wolverines, you couldn’t ask for anyone else at the plate with the season on the line –– the star dual-threat senior who has come up with several big hits in her career. But Blanco fouled off several pitches, getting herself in a 1-2 count, before watching strike three catch the outside edge of the plate and the season come to a close.
For the second straight year and the third time since 2004, the Wolverines did not advance past Regionals.
This time they are losing a pair of starting seniors in Blanco and Falk.
“I think it was a tough way to go out,” said Uden. “I am extremely grateful for the senior class that we had. They contributed a lot to turn the program around, from losing a couple key players – they stepped it up. You know, that’s all you can be thankful for, you know, to be here and play for the Big Blue and the people around you.”