This past weekend, the Northwestern softball team clinched the Big Ten championship.
It was pretty much a foregone conclusion after two weekends ago, when the Wildcats split a doubleheader with Michigan in Ann Arbor. Barring a dramatic Northwestern collapse down the stretch – which didn’t occur – it meant for the first time in more than a decade, a team not named Michigan or Iowa would win a regular-season Big Ten title.
Good for Northwestern.
Better for Michigan.
Wait, better for Michigan?
How is coming up short in the team’s quest for a Big Ten three-peat good for the defending national champs?
All season long, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins has repeated that this year’s team is not last year’s team. The roster may be similar and the uniforms may look the same, but just like in any other sport, the makeup of every team changes each year – even if it is just ever so slightly.
On the surface, this year’s team lost just two contributors from its national-championship squad a year ago. And even though seniors Jessica Merchant and Nicole Motycka were both very decorated Wolverine athletes, it was the contributions of the underclassmen that brought Michigan over the hump in Oklahoma City last June.
Whether it was clutch home runs from Becky Marx or Stephanie Bercaw to keep the Wolverines alive in their quest for a first ever national title, a timely strikeout from ace Jennie Ritter – who single handedly threw more pitches than half of the teams in the College World Series – or the homer that came off the bat of Samantha Findlay and sent Michigan fans into a frenzy, the core contributions came from people who are still on this year’s team.
But even though most of the main cast returned for an encore performance this year, the confidence and fearlessness last season’s Wolverines had didn’t show up on a consistent basis most of this season.
Whether it was a lack of leadership on the field, lack of confidence after losing games early in the season or just an inability to deal with high expectations, Hutchins was right: This year’s team wasn’t the same as last season’s.
But maybe Northwestern’s title is exactly what Michigan needed.
Sure, it sucks to not reach a goal. Clearly, a defending national champ should expect to win its conference title the following year.
But washed away along with an unreached goal will be the expectations that come along with it.
Last year, even though the team was ranked No. 1 prior to the Big Ten season beginning and kept the ranking all the way until it hoisted the national championship trophy in June, Michigan still thrived in the underdog role.
The Wolverines may have been ranked higher, but they certainly weren’t the favorite against the UCLA Bruins and the CWS dynasty it had. The top-ranked status the team had was overshadowed by the fact that no team East of the Mississippi had ever won a national championship.
The team may have had red-hot Jennie Ritter in the circle pitching in big games, but all of the so-called experts expected her to succumb to the pressure of facing aces like Texas’s Cat Osterman or Tennessee’s Monica Abbott.
So maybe what this year’s team needed was the opportunity to fly back under the radar. The televised games on ESPN this season are behind them. So is the preseason No. 1-ranking that was attached to the defending champs.
Now they’re just another hungry team.
A team that once again has nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Watch out, softball world.
Scott Bell thinks it’s far too early for Michigan fans to give up on travel plans to Oklahoma City this summer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org