Michigan softball team gathers in a circle, high-fiving each other.
Michigan approaches the first in-person Softball Academy since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Julia Schachinger/Daily.  Buy this photo.

Since its first pitch back in February, Michigan’s softball season has been a return to several norms. Back then, it was the return of non-conference play. Most recently, it was an Alumni Field atmosphere filled with fans.

And on Thursday, it will be the return of a fully in-person Michigan Softball Academy.

The American Cancer Society fundraiser has been a foundational piece of the program’s calendar — and that of the whole athletic department — for 13 years now. The two-hour instructional clinic and social mixer allows for members of the community to play some softball, and get to know the Wolverines on a more personal level. The silent auction and donation-generating registration process centers the event around its greater cause to save lives from cancer.

But unlike any other time in the event’s history, this year the majority of the team lacks true experience of the foundational event.

“It’s really weird that I’m one of only two classes that have ever done it in person on this team,” senior right-hander Alex Storako said. “So it’s just fun and it really puts the game in perspective.”

Like anything else, COVID-19 had its share of implications on the academy. For the past two years, Michigan adapted to those circumstances and preserved the event’s legacy virtually.

With COVID-19 restrictions lessening, this year brings the event back to Alumni Field. And the return brings a whole new level of excitement and plenty of special features to reflect that. 

After capturing the first Olympic medal in program history in August (a silver for Team USA), Michigan alum Amanda Chidester will serve as the event’s honorary chair. Chidester, an infielder for the Wolverines from 2009 to 2012 and two-time Big Ten Player of the Year, was a participant in the very first edition of the academy.

This year will also see the return of the Home Run Derby to the event’s agenda, an event that has appealed to crowds ever since its relatively-recent inception. 

“It was (former Michigan quarterback) Rick Leach’s (idea),” Wolverines coach Carol Hutchins said. “He called out (Michigan football coach Jim) Harbaugh and said ‘we’ll have a home run derby.’ Leach has been a participant, so we kind of thought it would become a revenue enhancer.”

Thursday’s derby features four well-known figures in the football program, three of whom are former players. Wolverines running backs coach Mike Hart, assistant director of player personnel Denard Robinson, Valiant Management co-founder John Wangler and radio play-by-play voice Doug Karsch will participate.

Hitters can be “voted” on with donations in their name, and whoever receives the most “votes” will win home field advantage. 

“Those guys smack talk each other,” Hutchins said. “I’m in a group text with them.”

The biggest piece of excitement towards the Softball Academy’s in-person return, above all, has been the engagement of the fundraising process. Michigan has raised over $1.5 million for the American Cancer Society, and nearly 200 participants have signed up across 24 teams.

A majority of the Wolverines haven’t experienced the Michigan Softball Academy in its full capacity, but Thursday will be a fitting re-introduction.

“I believe our duty in the world, as people, as humans, is to leave the world better,” Hutchins said. “I think that’s our kids: they have a platform, and a chance to give back to our community. I’m more proud of that than any other thing we’ve done here.”

On Thursday, that off-field accomplishment will again take centerstage in a place where on-field accomplishments are so often the focus.