Almost nine months ago, the setting was Oklahoma City, Okla. in the elimination game of the NCAA Women’s College World Series.
The then-No. 2 Michigan softball team was in a deadlock against then-No. 8 Florida State. Junior right-hander Megan Betsa was pitching one of her strongest outings of the season, giving up only one hit and four walks while striking out four. All but one Seminole baserunner allowed in the entire game reached base during the third inning, when a wild pitch scored the sole Florida State run. But the Wolverines couldn’t generate an offensive response, eventually losing 1-0 and swiftly ending a run for their first championship since 2005.
Two hundred and sixty-six days later and the backdrop will change to Palm Springs, Calif., as the same teams will battle again for the first time since the Seminoles knocked Michigan out of title contention. But Florida State is only one of Michigan’s hard-hitting opponents this weekend, as the fourteenth-ranked Wolverines (6-3) head to California for their annual spring break trip to compete in two tournaments, the first being the five-game Mary Nutter Classic.
Michigan will play five games over three days, starting with back-to-back morning matchups against New Mexico State and No. 18 Texas A&M on Friday. Saturday brings a contest versus Bethune-Cookman, and on Sunday, the Wolverines will end the weekend with an afternoon doubleheader against now-No. 1 Florida State and No. 21 Arizona State. On paper, Michigan has a more difficult schedule than it had the previous two weeks — playing three ranked schools in the span of three days — that will show the true resilience of a team still trying to find its identity.
Last weekend’s impressive outing in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge saw the Wolverines go 3-1 and rebound from a loss to Notre Dame with a commanding 9-2 rout over the Fighting Irish the next day. A fielding percentage of .983 and a team batting average of .350 were two statistics that Michigan coach Carol Hutchins saw as major positives coming out of its second week of competition. The team was also able to generate more power at the plate, increasing its home run production from one to 10 from the first to second tournament.
However, there are still aspects of their game that the Wolverines need to iron out to reign victorious over break. Taking advantage with runners in scoring position and playing better when trailing were both details stressed during practice this week.
“We need better at-bats when we’re behind,” Hutchins said. “They don’t need to be any better than when we’re ahead, they just need to be as good. I’ve seen us be anxious and take ourselves out of the game with poor at-bats and swinging at poor pitches.”
Practically, the yearly spring break trip is a way for Michigan to squeeze 10 games in over nine days, something that cannot usually be achieved throughout the rest of the season, Hutchins explained. But for the players, the trip is seen as an important opportunity to bond as a team. Traveling together for two straight weeks in close quarters provides a chance to connect at a deeper level.
“I think (the trip) brings us a lot closer,” said senior center fielder Kelly Christner, whose play in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge led to a Big Ten Player of the Week award. “We each have a roommate we’re with the entire week, so I think you get to know them better, especially if it’s a freshman or a sophomore who you’re not as close with. And I think, overall, it just makes us mesh better as teammates on and off the field.”
But for Hutchins, the only team chemistry she worries about is the group production and trust on — not off — the softball field, something she feels her young group lacks.
“I don’t care if they take selfies together and like each other,” she said. “I only care that on the field they pull together and that helps you win games, and I don’t think we’re there yet. I don’t think our team trust is where it needs to be yet on the field. I think we’re still a little bit individual — I saw it (Wednesday) at practice — we get a little internal and individual when it gets tough and tight. When we fully trust that our team has our back, we’ll have more confidence in ourselves and then we’ll have more confidence as a team.”
Two hundred and sixty-six days ago, heartbreak for Michigan came at the hands of Florida State. Although some hope for retribution, the Wolverines’ main mentality is to be fully focused throughout the entire Mary Nutter Classic, playing with purpose in all five of its games against both ranked and unranked opponents.
“Obviously, there is that little bit of ‘They got us last year, so let’s go back and get them,’ ” Christner said. “But I think we go in with the same mindset that every game is a big game, so let’s go out attacking at the beginning. … We’re not going to be any more hyped for that game than any other game.”
Added Hutchins: “We really need to embrace the so-called ‘pressure’ that goes with (the game), and hopefully playing ranked teams will take it off of them. We just need to play good softball. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing a ranked opponent or who we’re playing because ultimately, we’re playing the game of softball.”