COLUMBUS, Ga. – After shocking the nation by becoming the first team east of the Mississippi to win the Women’s College World Series, the No. 8 Michigan softball team spent its Spring Break delving into uncharted territory – playing as the defending National Champions.
The team has won 11 of its first 16 games to start the year. The record has helped Michigan remain in the nation’s top 10, but Michigan coach Carol Hutchins believes the team’s performance in the early part of this season is not an indication of how the Wolverines’ season might go. In these first few games, Hutchins is hoping the team, which includes three freshmen, can gel together.
“We’re always looking to get into a groove,” Hutchins said. “We try to get better as a team and evolve as a team. The most important thing is to get together as a group so that everybody’s roles evolve.”
The team traveled throughout the southeast United States during the break, competing in the NFCA Leadoff Classic, the Sunshine State Tournament and a handful of other games.
The Wolverines’ trip began in Columbus, Ga. for the NFCA Leadoff Classic, which featured many of the nation’s top teams. Hutchins was looking forward to seeing how Michigan stacked up against stiff competition. But the tournament was cancelled after the Wolverines’ two Friday games when the Columbus area was hit with more than two inches of rain on Saturday.
Michigan split its two Friday games, losing to No. 7 Alabama in extra innings before knocking off Hofstra immediately after. Senior Jennie Ritter was the star of the Alabama game, pitching a complete game including two extra innings. In the process, she showed Hutchins that she will likely continue her dominant form of last year.
In the Hofstra game, freshman pitcher Stacy Delany emerged as a new star. After junior Lorilyn Wilson struggled, allowing three runs in the second inning, Delaney came on in relief and shut the Pride down in the remaining five innings. Hutchins was pleased to see Delaney bounce back after a rough outing in her debut one week earlier.
Delaney didn’t seem to command the same authority as Ritter, but Hutchins remembers Ritter looking very similar during her first year donning the Maize and Blue.
“(In Delaney), I see a lot of Jennie Ritter as a freshman,” Hutchins said. “She’s not as confident as Ritter was, but people don’t remember Ritter as a freshman. Since then, Ritter has raised her mental game to an A-game.”
Even as the Hofstra game progressed, Hutchins believes that Delaney’s confidence began to build.
“I thought that inning after inning she got better,” Hutchins said. “Confidence is really important in pitching, and her confidence got better as the game went on. And you have to be confident to be in control of your game.”
Delaney earned another win at Georgia last Monday, in the second of two games that Hutchins scheduled because of the shortened tournament. She dropped her first decision against Troy in Auburn, Ala. on Tuesday, but Delaney was responsible for just two of the Trojans’ four runs.
After seeing both Delaney’s solid pitching and the consistent play of freshmen shortstop Teddi Ewing and outfielder Allison Kidman, Hutchins is content with the play of her newest Wolverines.
“I have been more pleased with the freshmen than any other group on the team,” Hutchins said. “They’re not trying to live up to other expectations; they are just trying to play good softball.”
After the loss to Troy, Michigan defeated No. 17 Auburn 1-0 before moving on to Tallahassee, Fla. The Wolverines shut out Florida State 9-0 on Thursday. Ritter allowed just one hit and struck out 12 in the game.
The final games of Michigan’s trip were in the Sunshine State Tournament, where it went 2-1, defeating Maryland and Florida State before losing to Western Michigan. With their two wins, the Wolverines qualified for the championship, where they defeated Florida State again.
This time, the score read 5-0 behind a 16 strikeout performance by Ritter, which matched her career high and was just one shy of the Michigan record.