Michigan coach Bonnie Tholl is no stranger to the Michigan softball team. And with that familiarity, Tholl understands the legacy and prowess of the program — along with the disappointment of early playoff exits in recent years.
Before the season began, Tholl proclaimed her Oklahoma City mindset — the mindset that revolves around approaching everyday with the inclination of reaching that final destination in Oklahoma City, home of the Women’s College World Series.
“There’s not much air at the top of the mountain,” Tholl said Feb. 6. “That’s why very few people get there. But that’s always what we’re shooting for and so we’re not going to make excuses for why we’re not succeeding on the field. We’re going to find a way. And if it doesn’t happen tomorrow we’re gonna work for it until it happens and we’re going to keep our standards high.”
The expectation has always been to make it to the Women’s College World Series, but the Wolverines have not matched that expectation since 2016. And it’s safe to wonder if — given the current state of the program — Tholl set the expectations too high.
Tholl has worked as assistant coach, associate head coach, recruiting coordinator and now head coach in her 29 years with Michigan — serving as associate head coach for 20 years. And while a transition to a new head coach could put the Wolverines in a rebuilding year following, Tholl has made it clear that the expectations haven’t changed. But maybe they should.
Michigan is only returning 11 of the 20 players on the roster, giving Tholl a tall task of putting together a team capable of reaching Oklahoma City. However, having served as recruiting coordinator in recent years, Tholl had a large say in bringing the new faces.
One of the biggest holes Tholl had to fill was in the circle. Michigan lost nearly all of its pitching productivity following right-hander Alex Storako’s transfer. The Wolverines also lost two of its best hitters in outfielder Kristina Burkhardt and catcher Hannah Carson.
Although the absence of these players might seem ominous, even these star players were unable to make it to Oklahoma City in their Michigan carrers. And so far this year, many of the same issues still remain.
One persistent problem from the last few years has been production from the batter’s box.
Especially when competing against high caliber teams in pre-conference tournaments, Michigan has struggled to get its offense going. The Wolverines have tallied five home runs and conceded 16 to their opponents thus far. And while home runs aren’t everything, when severely outmatched in that category, it becomes much harder to make up ground.
Despite allowing 16 home runs this season, one bright spot has been pitching. Sophomore right-hander Lauren Derkowsi and transfer junior right-hander Jessica LeBeau, have proved crucial to Michigan’s success — with much credit also going to long time assistant and pitching coach Jennifer Brundage.
In order for the Wolverines to succeed, they will need to maintain Derkowski and LeBeau’s consistency while also fixing their problems in the batter’s box that have been a constant over the past few years.
So far this season, the Wolverines have played seven ranked opponents including No. 2 UCLA and No. 3 Oklahoma State. All these games have ended in the losing column for Michigan, all due to lack of offense.
In the games the Wolverines have won, they have not been due to improvement on offense, but rather with strength on defense. Against Cal Fullerton and UCF, where both teams were similar competitively to Michigan, the Wolverines won in defensive showdowns. While there have been minor improvements in the beginning of the season, Michigan will need to improve its batting all the way down the roster in order to stand a chance against the top teams in the country and especially to make it to Oklahoma City.
“We’re going to be a team that has to take risks,” Tholl said Feb. 19. “Especially when you’re facing high caliber opponents. We need to take some risks, because maybe we’re playing opponents that had more firepower offensively, and they could hit the ball over the fence, but what we can do really well is run bases and make good on the opportunities that they gave us.”
Tholl is inadvertently revealing the flaw of her team. Teams that compete at the highest level and make the Women’s College World Series have offensive firepower. The Wolverines don’t. And if the batting does not improve drastically, the risks they take will be the only spark their stagnant offense has.
While the Wolverines may not have fared up quite as well as they wanted to so far in pre-conference tournaments, the most important part is to learn and improve for when it does matter. Michigan went into pre-conference games with the mindset that success and failure early on is not the end all be all.
But soon, success will become much more important.
Moving into the last few pre-conference games, the Wolverines will have to improve upon what they’ve learned in the first few months of the Tholl era. After 20 games, splitting the win and loss column, Michigan will have to continue its improvement on the offensive end to stand a chance in the Big Ten let alone competing against the best teams in the nation.
“We knew it was going to be a growing year,” Tholl said Feb. 26. “We think we have the talent to have a successful year and so no goals have changed. We’re early in the season. We have a lot of games to play, a lot of getting better to do, and a lot of success to be had. We’re going to tighten up that defense, be consistent in the circle and find ways to manufacture runs and that’s going to continue to be our focus.”
Improvement is easier said than done. The Wolverines kept games close with opponents similar to them and beat most teams when they had more athleticism. However, consistency on offense and helping the pitchers on defense is a must if Michigan wants to compete with teams better than them.
Realistically, the Wolverines are in their first year under a new head coach and have a lineup full of new faces. With those two facts alone you would think a rebuild is more than necessary, but for Tholl, this year is more of a refuel. Knowing the legacy of the program, it begs the question: Is there really a chance for Michigan to make it to the Women’s College World Series? Or are the expectations unrealistically high?
The Wolverines will have to prove that they improve dramatically upon their early struggles or they will experience the same outcome that ended the last seven years: a regional exit. And the Oklahoma City mindset will remain just that — a mindset and not an expectation.