In a tale of two programs, powerhouse Michigan faces off against Penn State

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By Justin Meyer , Daily Sports Writer
Published March 27, 2014

Nearly every collegiate program faces the daunting task of rebuilding year after year. But the No. 6 Michigan softball team has faced that struggle fewer times than its opponent. This weekend’s series at Penn State highlights the advantage of being part of a nationally renowned tradition.

The Nittany Lions are coming off a season in which they struggled, but won a few tight Big Ten games against solid competition, including a win over Illinois to advance to the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament. There were also signs of player development, as senior Cassidy Bell was named a first team All-American after slugging 1.007 on the season.

But the departure of Bell and longtime coach Robin Petrini has proved to be too much for Penn State (0-3 Big Ten, 6-18 overall) this far into the season. First-year coach Amanda Lehotek has struggled to find offense from her team, and the Nittany Lions dropped an ugly conference opening series to Purdue last weekend.

Michigan (3-0, 22-6), on the other hand, used its image as a perennial powerhouse to replace the talent it lost this offseason, and then some.

Freshmen have stepped up in the field and at the plate, particularly during last weekend’s series against Indiana. Freshman third baseman Lindsay Montemarano and freshman first baseman Kelly Christner each homered in the third game of the series, giving the Wolverines an offensive spark after a sluggish start. Second baseman Abby Ramirez, also a freshman, has been a mainstay in the infield all season, starting every game.

Getting the freshmen comfortable and into a groove has been at the top of the Wolverines’ to-do list this week. It’s been a challenge made difficult by the poor weather.

Ramirez, Montemarano and Christner have all stepped up their game at the plate, but are far from finished improving. Ramirez, in particular, has continued to struggle with runners in scoring position, recording just two hits in 19 at-bats.

Freshman pitcher Megan Betsa has also been a source of frustration this season for Michigan head coach Carol Hutchins, who believes that Betsa has all the tools to be a dominant pitcher if the righty could be looser in the circle. After pulling her in the second inning last Saturday, Hutchins attributed Betsa’s in-game struggles to a lack of confidence and swagger.

“I think she’s better than that,” Hutchins said after sweeping Indiana on Saturday. “I think she’ll turn it around.”

The good news for Betsa is that there’s still a lot of softball to be played and Hutchins seems determined to get her youngest pitcher performing at a high level this season.

Pitching struggles aside, the Wolverines opened Big Ten play last weekend with a dominant performance. The team is on fire from the plate, and nearly error-free in the field. Sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero will likely continue to see a lot of pitchers throw around her this season, but she’s attacked the frustrating circumstances with poise.

Romero, who is batting .507 on the season despite being walked 31 times, has used her patience to excel.

If Romero, senior Caitlin Blanchard and sophomore Sierra Lawrence turn in hitting performances like they did against Indiana, Michigan has no reason to worry against Penn State.

But this Michigan team didn’t become a powerhouse program by scraping together wins against struggling teams, but rather by understanding one of Hutchins’ favorite clichés: The Wolverines aren’t playing the Nittany Lions — they’re playing the game of softball.

“We’re shooting for a championship performance, what it’s going to take to get to our destination,” Hutchins said. “I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Michigan, for all its talent, doesn’t play the game of softball perfectly, and so Hutchins will be jumping up and down on the sideline this weekend, pushing her pitchers, demanding more from her hitters and trying to mold a championship team in the process.