OKLAHOMA CITY — Whispers around the softball world could be heard about Michigan being cursed at the Women’s College World Series.
To use the word cursed would be an understatement.
The Wolverines amassed a 2-14 record in seven previous tournament appearances and finished seventh out of eight teams in five of those tournaments.
But this season Michigan isn’t playing like a cursed team. The Wolverines are playing more like an obsessed team. And people have noticed.
In a tournament where many of the games have been decided by defensive miscues in the late innings, the Wolverines won their first two games the hard way — great pitching, solid defense and timely hitting.
“We won and we came here to win,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said after the Wolverines’ first win over DePaul. “We’re trying to win this tournament, and it’s the only tournament we care about.”
In each of the first two games, a Wolverine has stepped up. Whether it has been backing up a bad throw and gunning a runner out at home plate — sophomore Rebekah Milian — or throwing out a runner trying to steal — junior Becky Marx — Michigan has made the big plays when they counted. And its traditional big guns have stepped up in ways beyond anyone’s imagination.
In her first two games, junior Jennie Ritter pitched like she was possessed — striking out 24 batters while only giving up four hits — in her two shut outs. Not to mention the fact that she out-dueled the national Player of the Year, Texas pitcher Cat Osterman.
Seniors Jessica Merchant and Nicole Motycka have combined to hit 6-for-11 with two RBI and three runs — providing leadership from upperclassmen in a tournament that has been dominated by underclassmen.
And freshman Samantha Findlay — displaying calm beyond her years — hit a two RBI single against Osterman on Friday night to open up the game for Michigan in its 4-0 win.
“I don’t think we felt the pressure that we’ve felt in the past,” Motycka said. “And that’s what made the difference.”
A key contributor to the team’s calmness has been Hutchins. From her post either in the dugout or in the coach’s box along the third-base line, Hutchins has exhumed an aura of coolness that has been contagious for her team.
But last night, the Wolverines slipped a bit in their game against No. 11 Tennessee. Despite another solid performance in the pitcher’s circle, Ritter wasn’t as dominant as she had been in the first two games. The offense also struggled. Against the World Series’ new darling — Lady Vols’ pitcher Monica Abbott — the team didn’t look as sharp at the plate and failed to cash in on run-scoring opportunities.
But Michigan softball is still just three wins away from its first national championship. Standing in its way is Tennessee and two-time defending national champion, UCLA.
The Bruins were counted out by many early in the year, but a strong finish and some terrific play in the NCAA tournament have placed the Bruins in their third straight title game.
The Lady Vols have become the ultimate Cinderella team, making the most of their first trip to the Women’s College World Series and upsetting powerhouses Arizona and Michigan.
For the Wolverines to stay true to form, they must rely on the arm of a dominant Ritter — which, so far, has been more valuable than the Hope Diamond. But Michigan must also rely on its older players — such as Motycka and Merchant — and the young guns — Giampaolo and Findlay — if it wants to leave Oklahoma City with a national title.
In this tournament, Michigan has been trying to shake off its past and make way for a whole new future.
Ironically, the only way the Wolverines will be able to win a national championship is if the past and future of the program can join together to notch two more victories in the present.