Softball opens with San Diego State at Tempe Regional

Ruby Wallau/Daily
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By Jake Lourim, Summer Managing Sports Editor
Published May 14, 2014

More than three months after the season started in Tampa, Fla., all the variables that the Michigan softball has tried to neutralize — weather, travel, opponent — are back in play.

As she has all season, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins will do her best to ignore them.

For most of the season, it looked like the Wolverines would be hosting another regional at the Wilpon Complex in front of their fans, playing as the favorite. Now, after finishing 8-6 in their last 14 games, they must travel 2,000 miles southwest to play in triple-digit temperatures against No. 9 seed Arizona State, which nearly no-hit Michigan in March.

As far as Hutchins is concerned, though, the game is the same — even if the Wolverines will be playing it with ice baths in the dugout and plenty of water.

Michigan will open regional play against San Diego State at 12:30 p.m. local time Friday, when the forecast projects temperatures up to 104 degrees. Arizona State will play Ivy League champion Dartmouth immediately after.

The winners and losers will play each other on Saturday in the double-elimination format, with the regional champion being decided Sunday.

And even though the Wolverines watched Minnesota celebrate a Big Ten Tournament championship last time they were on the field, the players say they’re still going in confident about their chances.

“I definitely think we have a chip on our shoulder,” said sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero. “We know what Michigan softball is, and we know what it takes to play Michigan softball. I think our mindset is great.”

In the final weeks of the season, when the team struggled, it really struggled. The Wolverines’ occasional inability to make in-game adjustments has caused several puzzling results, including a 10-2 road loss to Illinois on April 25 and a 9-3 home loss to Wisconsin on May 2.

Another case in point: Saturday night, when Minnesota brought in senior right-hander Sara Moulton for the fifth inning of the Big Ten final. Moulton proceeded to shut down the Wolverines for the rest of the game, getting the win when the Gophers scored on a walk-off single.

“We’re definitely going to take away our sense of fight and attack mindset,” said senior outfielder Nicole Sappingfield. “We did really well against Illinois and Wisconsin making adjustments, and I think we could have done a better job of that in the Minnesota game.”

Adjustments will be key this weekend, when a lackluster effort could prove costly in a double-elimination tournament. San Diego State boasts left-handed ace Danielle O’Toole, who will change speeds to keep Michigan off balance. The Sun Devils have two 20-win pitchers, right-handers Dallas Escobedo and Mackenzie Popescue, who combine for a sub-2.00 earned-run average. Any one of them could give the Wolverines problems. When Arizona State played Michigan in Fullerton, Calif. on March 6, Escobedo twirled a complete-game one-hitter to beat the Wolverines, 2-0.

But this time of the year, every team has its strengths — Minnesota, for example, eliminated Michigan with its pitching. Hutchins said the Wolverines’ strength is their three top pitchers, which keeps the opponent guessing as to who will start, while Sappingfield noted the depth in their lineup.

“One of our big strengths is the idea that every single person on our team can get it done, regardless of where you are in the lineup, or how you played last game or last at-bat,” Sappingfield said. “No matter who it is, someone can get it going at any point in time.”

Hutchins and Sappingfield downplayed the experience factor heading into this weekend. Michigan, San Diego State and Arizona State are all regulars in the NCAA Tournament, and each has several seniors who could be playing their last college game this weekend.

“Our season is basically on the line these days,” Hutchins said Saturday. “I can’t imagine anyone would be too tired to finish hard.”