Youth leads Wolverines into Ragin’ Cajun Invitational

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By Max Bultman, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 13, 2014

After an appearance in the Women’s College World Series last season, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Michigan’s softball team has plenty of veteran leadership.

What is eye catching, though, is how productive the Wolverines’ underclassmen were in their season-opening tournament at South Florida.

Second baseman Abby Ramirez was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week after batting .583 and scoring six runs in four games this past weekend, and freshman right-handed pitcher Megan Betsa led the sixth-ranked Wolverines in innings pitched (10) and strikeouts (13) in her first tournament. Another underclassman, sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero, had a grand slam and nine runs batted in.

The freshmen aren’t just filling gaps left by departed seniors, either — they’re stepping up into important roles. Left fielder Kelly Christner pushed hard for playing time in the preseason and was ultimately rewarded by starting the opener against Florida over returning sophomore outfielder Sierra Lawrence.

So when Michigan (3-1) travels to Lafayette, La. for a five-game invitational this weekend, it will do so knowing it has the depth and poise needed to win games, regardless of which players have experience.

“The game doesn’t know if you’re a freshman or a senior,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “The game only knows how you play it.”

Hutchins’ players have internalized the motto. It comes through in the way they practice, what they say in interviews and, more importantly, in the way they’ve been playing to start the season.

The Wolverines will open this weekend’s tournament against Memphis (1-3) on Friday, a game in which they will be heavily favored.

The Tigers have mustered just eight runs in four games while giving up 17, including nine in a mercy-rule loss to Troy.

But after that game, Michigan can expect a serious challenge from No. 20 Louisiana-Lafayette. The Wolverines ousted the Ragin’ Cajuns (2-2-1) in last year’s Super Regional, but junior right-handed pitcher Sara Driesenga insists there won’t be any bad blood — at least from her dugout.

“I think it’s a pretty clean slate,” Driesenga said, smirking. “We did what we had to do.”

According to Hutchins and Driesenga, the team is focusing less on what to expect from its opponents this weekend and more on playing the type of softball it knows it can play.

That should mean a steady dose of offense this weekend, considering Louisiana-Lafayette’s team earned run average of 5.76. Michigan averaged upwards of six runs per game against a strong set of pitchers last weekend and should be expected to increase that figure in this road trip if its offense picks up where it left off.

The Wolverines scored seven runs against Illinois State in the first half of last Sunday’s doubleheader before crushing Bethune-Cookman, 12-1, to end their tournament.

Ramirez and Romero combined for five hits against Illinois State, and senior Lyndsay Doyle matched that on her own, tying a program record.

In the circle, Hutchins will rotate between Betsa, Driesenga and junior left-handed pitcher Haylie Wagner, matching their strengths with their opponent’s weaknesses and doling out innings to suit the pitchers’ needs.

“I tell my pitchers, ‘You’re on the team. You need to be ready to pitch,’ ” Hutchins said.

For the youngster Betsa, Hutchins hopes steady innings will lead to confidence on the mound, something that appeared to influence her control at times last weekend.

“She just needs to believe in herself,” Hutchins said. “We believe in her.”

Michigan’s other games will come against Boston College, a team it beat 14-2 last season, and, for the first time in school history, Central Arkansas.

But behind the Wolverines’ comfortable balance of veteran composure and youthful energy, the introduction is shaping up as one that the Bears might want to forget.