For the 23rd straight season and 25th season overall, the No. 20 Michigan softball team is in the NCAA Tournament, looking for its second championship and first since 2005.
But for just the fifth time in program history, the Wolverines will not play inside the friendly confines of Alumni Field.
This weekend, Michigan (41-11-1 overall, 20-3 Big Ten) will play in the Seattle Regional, which also consists of No. 6 overall seed and host Washington, Fresno State and Montana. The Wolverines’ first game is Friday night against Fresno State, with ensuing games Saturday and Sunday. The winner of the double-elimination round advances to the Super Regionals next weekend against the winner of the regional hosted by No. 11-seed Utah.
Following a surprising 5-4 loss to in-state rival Michigan State in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament last weekend, Michigan’s possibility of hosting a regional of its own swiftly evaporated. However, the Wolverines are determined to put the loss behind them and bounce back in a huge way in the NCAA Tournament.
In a radio interview with WTKA Wednesday, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins restated the importance of playing loose and with a “nothing-to-lose” mentality. She discussed senior leadership, first citing right-hander Megan Betsa — one of her “most astute players” — needing to rebound from a dismal performance against the Spartans. Hutchins also said center fielder Kelly Christner must extend her fine play from the loss last Friday into the NCAA Tournament.
“We’ve got to show up as warriors and we’ve got to go for it,” Hutchins said. “I think the kids understand that, it’s (just) a matter of executing it.”
The Daily looks at the three teams Michigan may face in the Seattle Regional:
No. 6 seed Washington (43-11, 16-8 Pac-12)
On paper, the Wolverines’ toughest competition is the Huskies, the regional round host and one of the nation’s best teams. Described by Hutchins as a fully-capable, “well-balanced” team, Washington enters the tournament with an impressive résumé — the Huskies are one of just two teams to have defeated No. 1 Minnesota this season — and personnel.
With a pitching staff that has looked unstoppable in recent contests, Washington is led by right-handers Taran Alvelo (28-6, 1.90 ERA) and Samantha Manti (7-2, 2.89 ERA), two underclassmen who have shown no signs of slowing down after a strong regular season.
Supporting the dominant arms of Alvelo and Manti is a consistent offense featuring seven players with 118 at-bats or more and at least a .338 batting average. Five of these Huskies tallied over 52 hits, and four reached 10 or more doubles.
Fresno State (34-21, 14-9 Mountain West)
Michigan’s first opponent of the weekend, Fresno State, has two players who define the team and its achievements.
Though she was used solely in pinch-hitting scenarios last season, outfielder Morgan Howe now leads the Bulldogs’ offense. In her sophomore campaign, she is hitting .438 with 63 hits and a .639 slugging percentage. Howe has shown even more growth with a team-high .473 batting average in conference play.
On the other side of the ball, right-hander Kamalani Dung gets the nod after posting a 25-13 record, a 2.17 ERA and eight shutouts during the regular season.
Montana (35-22, 15-6 Big Sky)
In just its third season as a program, Montana is playing in its first NCAA Tournament. After going 25-7 in its last 32 games and winning last weekend’s Big Sky Tournament, the Grizzlies received an automatic bid and will now vie for the national championship all three other teams in the region have won.
Montana will live or die by the right arm of Michaela Hood. Already making a big splash in her freshman year, Hood comes in with an 18-5 record, 2.15 ERA, five shutouts and four saves. In the Big Sky Tournament alone, she threw 21.1 innings, and allowed three earned runs.
Third baseman Bethany Olea and shortstop Delene Colburn lend veteran presence. Senior Olea leads the Grizzlies in the cleanup spot with a .422 average, 73 hits and 47 runs. But it’s Colburn’s power that can help Montana play spoiler to frontrunners Washington and Michigan. The junior hits .402 and has a team-high 18 doubles, 14 home runs (half the team’s total), 58 RBIs, 132 total bases and a .759 slugging percentage.