As the No. 19 Michigan softball team heads to Durham for this weekend’s Duke Invitational, the eyes of the softball world will be upon the Wolverines.
And not for the usual reasons.
Last weekend, the softball world took note of No. 19 Michigan as it faced off against some of the nation’s toughest competitors, going 2-2 at the nationally televised SPC Elite Invitational.
But at the Duke invitational, the competition that the Wolverines are facing isn’t what will attract onlookers; it will be the implications of what a win will mean for Michigan coach Carol Hutchins.
An individual victory isn’t something new to Hutchins, but her next win — win number 1,675 — carries significant weight. With that win, Hutchins will pass longtime Arizona coach Mike Candrea to become the winningest softball coach of all time — a feat 38 seasons in the making.
The record will be a testament to both Hutchins’s talent and longevity as a head coach. But at the same time, the Wolverines and Hutchins herself have made it clear that garnering the record won’t be their focus at the upcoming invitational.
“The team as a whole has a good awareness of (the record), but we aren’t stepping on the field like ‘we’ve got to get Hutch’s X-number of win,’” graduate left-hander Meghan Beaubien said. “We’re there, we want to win regardless, and when Hutch’s milestones come along with it, it’s fantastic, but I don’t think anyone’s pressing about it either.”
Beaubien makes it clear that the focus for Michigan is winning — records are simply a byproduct. At the Duke Invitational, the Wolverines will have the opportunity to claim both. But to do so, they’ll have to continue building on last weekend’s improvements at the dish.
“We’re trying to get them a little more laser focused on driving the ball,” Hutchins said. “Right now we’re a little disconnected because we’re starting early, we’re a little anxious, a little trying too hard, a little too much thinking. We need to go up there to drive the next hittable pitch… We’re still a work in progress.”
Michigan’s slate will kick off with a matchup against Army late Thursday that was originally scheduled for Friday but rescheduled due to “anticipated inclement weather.” The Black Knights (1-4) have struggled up to this point in the season. Their hitting has been weak with a .227 average, and their pitching has fared even worse, allowing seven or more runs in three of five games for a combined 5.42 ERA.
In their matchup against Army, the Wolverines have an opportunity to put that emphasis on hitting to to use. But they can’t afford to overlook the Black Knights either.
Army infielder Madi Gilmore and utility player Jolie Duong had explosive opening weekends at the plate, hitting .415 and .385. These two will be important factors in the offense that Michigan will look to defuse.
In their first game on Friday, the Wolverines will take on Northern Kentucky for their first of the weekend’s two matchups between the teams. The Norse are 6-4 on the season and are a solid mid-major, but so far they have only faced weak competition.
Michigan’s bats will be tested by Northern Kentucky’s ace Lauryn Hicks. Hicks has been consistent this season, compiling a 1.14 ERA and allowing only seven hits in three appearances on the mound. Hicks will push the Wolverines to prove that they’ve made progress at the plate.
Michigan’s biggest test of the weekend, however, will be back-to-back games against No. 13 Duke. The Blue Devils have had a roaring start to the season, boasting a 9-2 record and a victory over No. 4 Oklahoma State. Duke is talented on both sides of the ball, with six hitters batting over .320 and an ace pitcher in Jala Wright who has posted a 1.24 ERA.
Michigan’s pitching, as usual, should be able to carry its weight. But the question the team will face against Duke is whether it can produce at the plate. So far, the Wolverines’ new faces have been their best assets at bat, while their star returners, senior outfielder Lexie Blair and fifth-year first baseman Taylor Bump, have lagged behind. Bump and Blair undoubtedly have the talent to drive Michigan to success, and against the Blue Devils, their contributions will be essential if Michigan is to emerge victorious.
Not only does this weekend’s tournament provide a major test for the Wolverines, it also stands as an opportunity for Hutchins to secure a monumental achievement.
And as Hutchins herself puts it: “I like to win the first game, the last game and every game in-between.”
So, this weekend, they’ll look to do just that.