It’s safe to say that anyone expecting Kent State to march into Alumni Field and take the first game of the No. 3 Michigan softball team’s opening homestand was a member of an extreme minority.
The Golden Flashes aren’t nationally ranked, but Saturday revealed them to be far from a talentless squad. Michigan saw the best efforts of Kent State right-hander Emma Johnson, who came into the weekend sporting a 0.61 ERA, an opponent batting average of .114 and a 5-2 record.
“(Johnson) is as good as anybody I’ve seen, she is legit,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “Our game plan, believe it or not, was to lay off the rise ball. We did a horrible job and we didn’t execute it at all.”
Johnson’s rise ball gave Michigan’s lineup fits throughout the series. Combined with the big bat of Golden Flash third baseman Maddy Grimm, who homered twice and accounted for all three of Kent State’s runs, Johnson was too much for the Wolverines in the 3-0 loss.
Michigan couldn’t produce on offense, and senior left-hander Haylie Wagner allowed a two-run homer in the first inning to Grimm. However, even against Johnson’s stellar pitching, the first game was hardly devoid of opportunities for the Wolverines to put up runs.
In the bottom of the fifth inning, Michigan sophomore third baseman Lindsay Montemarano dug in at the plate with the Wolverines down by two runs. She singled to get on base and stole second in between a pair of pop up outs from sophomore shortstop Abby Ramirez and junior centerfielder Sierra Lawrence. Then sophomore left fielder Kelly Christner walked to put two Wolverines on the basepaths.
A Kent State throwing error allowed Montemarano to get to third in time for Michigan’s biggest bat, junior second baseman Sierra Romero to step up to the plate.
The stage was set, but the resulting play was a disappointment for the Wolverines as Romero grounded out to end the inning. In the bottom of the seventh inning, another Montemarano single represented another missed opportunity.
After Montemarano got on base, Ramirez and Lawrence both recorded outs, and Christner walked again. Then Romero was due up, just like during the fifth inning. But once again couldn’t come up with a clutch hit. Michigan stranded a baserunner in scoring position once more.
“It’s tough to win when your spark doesn’t spark and your home-run hitter is trying to hit home runs,” said Hutchins. “In (Romero’s) last at bat, she was trying to hit a home run. That’s not following the game plan.”
But the Wolverines turned it around 20 minutes later in the second half of Saturday’s doubleheader, beating Kent State, 10-1. The difference between games can be credited in part to an attitude adjustment from Michigan – and as always, a determination to be one pitch better.
“One of the main things honestly was the attitude of the players and the coaches,” Christner said after Sunday’s 8-1 win. “We talked about it yesterday and today. (Hutchins) said ‘I need to have a better attitude and you guys need to have a better attitude,’ so collectively we were more positive. We still just stayed positive and knew that we could get the job done and we did.”
Positivity led to more production at the plate, and sophomore right-hander Megan Betsa had the focus and composure in the circle enough to give Michigan its chance to win. Betsa pitched well in both wins, especially during a few tight spots before the Wolverines got their offense going in Sunday’s series finale.
“I thought one of the biggest things for us today was Betsa being one pitch tougher,” Hutchins said. “She had a few tough moments the inning before we broke it open. She really had to tough it out.”
Betsa’s personal philosophy in the circle aided her in the top of the sixth inning on Sunday when Kent State had the bases loaded and two outs. Betsa got Golden Flash catcher Erika Warren to foul out and removed herself from the jam.
With the right mental approach, Michigan proved itself able to compete on an elite level. Early on in the young season, perhaps the biggest woe of the Wolverines has been being able to settle into the right mentality, something Hutchins credits to Michigan’s struggles in game one.
“They came excited to play, ready to play, and ready for it to be sunny and 70 – and it wasn’t,” Hutchins said. “We weren’t ready to battle, my pitcher wasn’t ready to battle, and I think my senior pitcher needs to be better than that.”