Report Card: Grading Michigan’s 2013 season

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By Erin Lennon, Daily Sports Writer
and Greg Garno , Daily Sports Writer
Published June 5, 2013

From Orlando, Fla. to Fullerton, Calif., to Lincoln, Neb., and finally Oklahoma City, the No. 8 Michigan softball team went the distance this season, literally. Like any young team — one that boasted seven freshman and four sophomores on its roster — Michigan has experienced the turbulence associated with a five-month season and a run at a national championship.

There were the highs — two Super Regional final comeback wins to send the Wolverines to the Women's College World Series — and the lows, like an early exit from the Big Ten tournament.

As it is in the classroom along with the softball field, after the final comes the grade. The Daily softball beat issues its report card for the season.

Most Valuable Player: Sara Driesenga

Sure, freshman shortstop Sierra Romero swung her way to a Big Ten Player of the Year award. But like the old saying goes: They can’t win if they don’t score.

For that reason, this year’s most valuable player is sophomore right-hander Sara Driesenga.

Driesenga’s unorthodox rise to the Wolverines’ ace began with a back injury to sophomore left-hander, and former Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, Haylie Wagner. Without production from senior pitcher Stephanie Speirman, Driesegna was forced to pitch nearly every inning through Michigan’s first three trips to Florida in February.

In place of the preseason National Collegiate Player of the Year finalist, Driesenga was a horse from the start. Pitching became the story of non-conference play, as Driesenga bailed out a streaking, young offense to earn the Wolverines 21 victories. And when Wagner returned, Driesenga didn’t relinquish her spot as Michigan’s No. 1 on the pitching staff.

Following three wins against three ranked programs in the Judi Garman Classic, Driesenga earned Big Ten Pitcher of the Week and NFCA National Player of the Week. She also recorded her first career no-hitter against Hofstra.

When an offense that warranted preceding adjectives like explosive, contagious, potent or unstoppable in the regular season was shut down during the postseason, it was Driesenga in the driver’s seat all the way to Oklahoma.

In 11 postseason contests, the nation’s second-best offense produced just 2.63 runs per game — five runs below its regular-season average. To answer, Driesenga threw four complete-game shutouts in nine NCAA tournament appearances and earned seven victories.

Driesenga finished her sophomore season with a 1.89 ERA and 31 of Michigan’s 51 team victories — a performance worthy of first team All-Big Ten honors and Michigan’s 2013 MVP.

Most Improved: Sierra Lawrence

One of just two freshmen on scholarship at the University, left fielder Sierra Lawrence finished this season as the Wolverines’ most improved player.

A recruit out of Greater Atlanta Christian High School, Lawrence was projected to find her home next to a fellow Sierra, as in freshman shortstop Sierra Romero. As a senior in high school, Lawrence hit .568 with a record-setting 14 home runs and 49 bases stolen — a testament to her speed at 5-foot-8.

After struggling through fall ball, Lawrence was questionable as a starter, let alone a starting infielder. When Romero secured her position at shortstop, Lawrence was forced to adjust to the outfield — in the Wolverines’ only unfilled position in left field. The freshman committed three fielding errors in February and March, but was perfect through the remainder of the season.

Much like her defense, Lawrence found her home in the batting order midway through the season. In just six days as the number-nine hitter, Lawrence used her speed to turn over the lineup and score 26 runs for the offense in six Michigan victories. A mid-season offensive surge pushed Lawrence up in the order behind junior slugger Caitlin Blanchard.

Though it took a few months to brand ‘The Sierra’s,’ both were selected to represent the United States on the 2013 Junior Women’s National team in April.

In the Wolverines’ final game at the Women’s College World Series, Lawrence was the only player to score against Washington — after stealing second base, no less.

Lawrence finished the season hitting .314 with 47 runs scored and a team-leading 11 stolen bases, and was one of six Wolverines named to the All-Big Ten first team.

Offense: A/A-

It’s tough to give Michigan anything less than this grade after the type of numbers it put up. After all, this team went as far as its offense went.

The Wolverines finished the season tied with Tennessee for sixth place in runs scored, with 6.64, and entered the NCAA Tournament ranked second. They finished 15th nationally in team batting average (.321) and had the Big Ten Player of the Year in slugger Sierra Romero.

But the postseason may be a more accurate determiner of how the offense actually performed, which simply put, was nonexistent. The Wolverines ranked eighth out of the eight teams in the WCWS and totaled just 10 hits while scoring only four runs. Only Arizona State (Michigan’s only win) had less runs, and they played fewer games.

And while the Big Ten season may have contributed to inflated numbers, they were still spectacular. Nine mercy-rule victories, 21 runs in a single game and 74 home runs certainly deserve some respect.

Pitching: B+

Sara Driesenga can only do so much. And while she certainly is deserving of Michigan’s MVP, her teammate in the circle couldn’t quite keep up, bringing this grade down just a notch.

Driesenga and her teammate, sophomore left-hander Haylie Wagner, put up impressive numbers together, like a combined ERA of 2.38. Along with right-handers, freshman Alice Fitzpatrick and senior Stephanie Speierman, the Wolverines posted a solid 2.31 ERA, good enough for 41st in the nation.

But Wagner was injured and never fully regained her old self from last year’s stellar season. Fitzpatrick and Speierman were never strong enough to fill in, and both ended the season with a high ERA. The result was a one-woman show that exposed depth at a position that wasn’t expected to be an issue.

Defense B-:

In a second elimination game against Washington on Sunday, the No. 8 Michigan softball team carried a one-run lead into the top of the sixth inning with a chance to advance to a rematch of No. 1 Oklahoma.

The Huskies led off the inning with a single. A subsequent ball off of sophomore pitcher Sara Driesenga’s ankle into right field and throws to home, second and third, put Washington up by one with a runner on third.

It was one of the rare times the defense had failed Driesenga throughout the Wolverine’s journey to the Women’s College World Series, but something that didn’t surprise Michigan coach Carol Hutchins.

Hutchins has mentioned defense as the outright weakness of a team that had — and proved — the potential for greatness.

As a team, Michigan committed 77 errors this season, which is well over an error a game.

And while the roster may have boasted offensive stars, the defense often looked like a whole different team. Freshman shortstop and hitting sensation Sierra Romero may have hit 23 home runs, but she finished the season with a team-leading 24 errors at shortstop. With 13 errors of her own, senior second baseman Ashley Lane finished her season second to Romero in both home runs and errors.

The team also converted just 22 double plays on the season.

The Wolverines earn a passing grade on defense because of the post season and the post season alone. When a laboring Driesenga found herself with the bases loaded several times throughout the WCWS, it was the defense that came through in the clutch.

In Michigan’s sole victory in Oklahoma City against Arizona State, senior third baseman Amy Knapp — a newcomer to third base in her senior year — fielded a sharp grounder and threw home to start a 5-2-3 double play and end a bases-loaded threat. At third, Knapp committed just six errors this season — the lowest among Michigan infielders. Lauren Sweet also finished with a team-leading .986 fielding percentage.

Like a ‘B’ at the University, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Final Grade: A/A-.

Hutchins has done it again.

A winning season is not enough. More than 1,300 wins is not enough. With a program that has won 15 conference titles, made 10 world series and taken home a national championship — the first and only title east of the Mississippi — Oklahoma was always the goal.

Still, this season was intended to be one of rebuilding. Having lost all-star Amanda Chidester and captain Bree Evans, 2013 was to be about grooming the talented freshmen class into a title-winning machine. Hutchins talked of potential for greatness from early on, if only this squad would realize its potential in time.

And they did.

The Wolverines went undefeated in the Big Ten before meeting Nebraska in Lincoln to snap a 23-game winning streak. At Alumni Field, the home team was undefeated during the regular season and dropped just one game in the NCAA Super Regional to Louisiana-Laffayette.

But at the WCWS, the Wolverines were given a taste of their own medicine by top-seeded Oklahoma in Sooner territory — the team that would go undefeated en route to a national championship. And yet, with their backs up against the wall and in the wee hours of the night, nonetheless, Michigan earned a victory over Arizona to extend its season, if only by hours.

For now, let’s remember that this team was one of eight teams to make it to the WCWS, and one of six to win a game while in Oklahoma City.

So the Michigan softball team, with all of its vibrant, youthful talent, didn’t win a national championship. Lucky for Hutchins, this team has years left to complete the task at hand. So let the dreaded A/A-, a professor’s reminder that you didn’t quite fit in a grading category, serve as a reminder that there is always room for improvement. But also as an indication that next season leaves much to be expected.