Every year, the seniors on a team graduate and the freshmen move in. And along with the normal first-year worries, freshman athletes are sometimes expected to fill those senior gaps.

For some, it’s a crushing pressure, and they never get the chance to see the field. For Michigan softball, it hasn’t been a problem — specifically for infielder Julia Jimenez and utility player Lauren Esman.

With six Wolverine seniors graduating last season, perhaps the largest hole left to fill was former second baseman Faith Canfield’s spot. With multiple candidates for the position, it’s been a toss-up between sophomore infielder Morgan Overaitis and Jimenez. But this weekend, it seems the spot was closer to being solidified.

Jimenez has quickly established herself as the most viable candidate to start at second base. Starting at the top of the diamond for all four games this past weekend at the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Jimenez has continued to prove her ability to perform. 

She’s meshed well with the rest of the infield, especially with junior shortstop Natalia Rodriguez, her counterpart in the middle.

“She came ready to play,” Rodriguez said. “I see that heart in her, she’s got a good IQ of the game. We’ve gelled pretty nicely in the middle, we have a little handshake. Also just on the mental aspect she asks a lot of questions and tries to know the game better. She’s a good second baseman.”

Defensively, Jimenez had six putouts and three assists on the weekend. She also contributed to a double play and had no errors. 

“She fits right in,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “She’s comfortable, she’s competitive, she just has a great presence on the field. She’s actually a natural leader. We’re looking to find a way to put our bats in the game, but she really gives a good presence out there as a freshman. She doesn’t act like a freshman, I don’t even think she knows she’s a freshman.”

Her ability to play above her grade level and establish herself as a consistent face in the lineup this early in the season, according to Hutchins, will be instrumental in her potential success throughout the rest of the season. As one of the only freshmen seeing consistent defensive playing time, she’s opening up the idea of a breakout freshman season.

On the other side of the plate, Esman has shone.

On Sunday, the Wolverines found themselves tied for only the second time this season against Louisville. Calling upon Esman, Hutchins entered her into the lineup as a pinch-hitter for Rodriguez. In only her second collegiate at-bat, Esman shocked everyone with a grand slam. Adding four runs to Michigan’s total, and giving her a .500 batting average, the freshman showcased her capabilities at the plate.

“Kids like Lauren Esman are only going to get better if they play every pitch,” Hutchins said. “And everybody in that dugout can play every pitch of the game, and if they wait until the first time they see a pitch is when get their chance they’re not going to be ready. She swung at the first pitch and belted it.”

Esman’s potential to step-up with timely hits will be a quality that makes her hard to not put in lineups. If she can continue her success at the plate, that potential becomes a stabilizing and potent reality.

“Lauren’s a good hitter, I recruited her because I thought she was our kind of hitter,” Hutchins said. “She’s gotta learn hitting at this game, and pitching at this game, but we’d certainly like to get a lot of these young kids these bats. We’ve got a lot of good young talent, so it is our goal to get them in, it’s just a matter of, in tight games sometimes you go with what you know.”

Tight games are bound to happen throughout a season, but being able to look toward younger position players could prove instrumental — not only in the Wolverines’ early-season match-ups, but even further down the line.

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