In the midst of an exhausting stretch that features multiple doubleheaders and thousands of travel miles every weekend, the Michigan softball team will head back down to Florida to play five games in three days at the NFCA Leadoff Classic.
The 15th-ranked Wolverines (6-2) will face their stiffest test of the weekend when they open the tournament against No. 12 Louisiana-Lafayette (8-1). Led by pitcher Jordan Wallace, the Ragin’ Cajuns have won seven consecutive games since dropping a close contest to Iowa. Wallace has thrown five complete games of the six contests that she’s started, and the freshman has allowed a total of just three earned runs this season.
Michigan will likely counter in the circle with sophomore pitcher Sara Driesenga, who has performed admirably while filling in for sophomore ace Haylie Wagner. The right-handed pitcher has already won seven games in the young season and is contributing from the plate as well with a .412 batting average.
After winning Big Ten Pitcher of the Year in 2012, Wagner hasn’t appeared in a game this season for undisclosed reasons, and Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said that “we don’t really like to talk about injuries.” Hutchins doesn’t expect Wagner to play this weekend.
With doubleheaders on consecutive days in the Clearwater, Fla. heat, the Wolverines’ relief pitchers will be called upon more often this weekend. Both freshman Alice Fitzpatrick and senior Stephanie Speierman have pitched sparingly this season, due in part to Driesenga’s success.
“We’re going to worry about the first game,” Hutchins said. “Obviously, if we can get our other pitchers in, I think both (Speierman) and Alice need to be ready to help us win.”
After the opening game Friday against Louisiana-Lafayette, Michigan will have just a few minutes to regroup before it faces Illinois State (5-5). Though the Redbirds’ pitching has struggled this season, their offensive firepower will test the Wolverines. In its five victories this season, Illinois State has scored 37 runs, led by catcher Elizabeth Kay’s .387 batting average and three home runs.
Saturday afternoon, the Wolverines will play UC Davis (5-5) and Hofstra (2-3) before closing out the tournament Sunday against DePaul (4-6). After starting the season with four wins in five contests, the Blue Demons have dropped five consecutive games.
Tournaments like the NFCA Leadoff Classic put an extra burden on coaches, as they are tasked with preparing for five different opponents instead of a series against the same team. But Hutchins said that she’s gotten used to the challenge.
“The five games is part of the journey,” she said. “We practice good habit. We’re just trying to get better every day.”
The short practice weeks have made it difficult for Michigan to find a suitable replacement for recently graduated first baseman and two-time Big Ten Player of the Year Amanda Chidester. Last weekend, the Wolverines combined for six errors at the position, contributing heavily to the team’s loss to then-winless LIU Brooklyn. Junior Caitlin Blanchard — a catcher — made her first career start at first base during the FAU Classic, and performed well enough to earn additional practice time at the position this week.
“I put (Blanchard) over (at first) the last couple of days to give her some practice reps,” Hutchins said. “The competition is on. We’re trying to find who is going to play first base for us. The spot is still open.”