As one of eight sophomores on the preseason watch list for USA Softball National Collegiate Player of the Year, pitcher Haylie Wagner was nowhere to be found when the No. 14 Michigan softball team opened its season in Florida last weekend. Instead, sophomore Sara Driesenga took to the circle for the Wolverines (3-1), which may have found another ace for their rotation.

Wagner, a 32-game winner and unanimous Big Ten Pitcher of the Year in 2012, was expected to retain her leadership role this season. But her absence from practice and Michigan coach Carol Hutchins’ vague words suggest that the pitcher is suffering from a health-related issue.

“We don’t really like to talk about injuries,” Hutchins said. “She just isn’t in the lineup yet. We’re hopeful that we’ll get her back in a relatively short period of time.”

Driesenga made the most of her opportunity, pitching 23 innings on the weekend and allowing just three earned runs. Her efforts were capped by a complete-game shutout in the Wolverines’ 4-0 blanking of Samford on Sunday, when Driesenga added two hits and an RBI.

“I thought (Driesenga) handled it well,” Hutchins said. “She’s a fit kid, she’s a strong kid. … The competition isn’t going to get any easier.”

Though not as impressive as Wagner, Driesenga’s freshman year was also solid. In 2012, she made the All-Big Ten first team as a utility player after splitting time on and off the mound. Still, her performance last weekend demonstrated marked improvement since the successful freshman campaign.

“Sara is definitely better now than she was at the end of last season,” Hutchins said. “She still isn’t quite where she needs to be. … (Driesenga and Wagner) are both going to pitch for us, and we’ll see where that goes.”

But the competition for playing time is far from over. Hutchins stressed that the weeks before Big Ten play will allow players to earn bigger spots on the team. Freshman pitcher Alice Fitzpatrick made her collegiate debut on Feb. 9 against Florida Atlantic by striking out a batter in 0.2 innings, and she will be used more this weekend. Senior pitcher Stephanie Speierman also saw action against the Owls, but was chased after allowing two runs — one earned.

Two other starting slots are up for grabs as well. Before the season began, Hutchins named four players who might take over the vacant first base position. Junior Taylor Hasselbach held the spot on opening day, but freshman Kelsey Susalla also saw time by the end of the weekend. Juniors Nicole Sappingfield and Lyndsay Doyle have secured starting roles in the outfield, but Hutchins said the third position was still undecided.

Winners of five consecutive conference titles, Michigan is still searching for its 2013 identity. Before the season-opening tournament in Florida, Hutchins — who has been a part of the program since 1983 — claimed she had no idea how the team would perform in game situations. Though the team’s weekend was marred by a close loss to No. 12 South Florida, she was pleased with the way the team was coming together.

“We did play well,” Hutchins said. “If we keep getting runners on, then there’s going to come that big hit where we do score and we do get that extra run across the board that will push us over and help us win.”

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