As the most recent Michigan sports team to have won an NCAA national championship — now almost five years ago — the Michigan softball team knows all about high expectations.
In 2005, an extra-innings home run blast gave the Wolverines their first-ever softball championship, catapulting the program onto the national scene as the first team east of the Mississippi River to win the Women’s College World Series.
Since then, Michigan has fielded three Big Ten championship teams and advanced to at least the NCAA Super Regionals every year. Last season, the Wolverines made their first trip back to Oklahoma City since their NCAA championship, but ultimately couldn’t repeat their miraculous performance from four years before.
With essentially the entire roster back from a year ago and a number of experienced players, this may be the program’s best chance to return to glory.
And nobody has made that expectation clearer than the Michigan players themselves.
“Our team is on a mission,” sophomore outfielder Bree Evans said. “We want to win it this year and we know that we’re capable of winning it. We’re going to do anything we can to win the national championship this year.”
It’s a team that has all the tools. With veteran leadership, a certain amount of experience and arguably the best pitching duo in the nation, the fourth-ranked Wolverines are expected to do damage this year, in the conference and in the nation.
Already, Michigan has shown its talnet level on the national stage. Heading into Wednesday’s home opener against Bowling Green, the Wolverines (22-5) have won 13 of their last 14 games including wins against some of the top teams in the nation.
Currently, Michigan’s top five players in the lineup are all batting above .300, and all nine players were regulars in the lineup a year ago, including four first team All-Big Ten hitters and one second teamer.
“We obviously have big goals in mind,” senior pitcher Nikki Nemitz said. “We just want to fight and battle every game. We have a lot of senior experience, and I think that’s going to help us.”
With six seniors and 12 upperclassmen total, the Wolverines’ veteran leadership has already manifested itself in positive ways.
Michigan has already found itself in four extra-innings games this year. The Wolverines have managed to win three of those games, including against No. 2 Arizona last weekend and against then-No. 8 UCLA more than a month ago. Against the Wildcats, senior centerfielder Molly Bausher drove in the team’s lone run in the eight inning to propel the team to victory.
But as many teams before them have abruptly discovered, expectations, past accolades and even senior leadership don’t necessarily translate to victories in early June.
Michigan has had difficulties at the plate in the early season against some of the better teams they’ve played. In their five losses, the Wolverines have averaged less than three runs per game. Clearly, Michigan’s pitching won’t always be able to carry the team to victory, and at crucial points down the stretch the team’s bats will have to be ready to step up.
For now, in order to keep their eyes on the ultimate prize, the Wolverines simply have to focus on themselves.
“We’re not focused on the other team, we don’t care about the other team,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “We’re all about playing Michigan softball.”
And though the Michigan softball program may still be defined by what happened five years ago, when Samantha Findlay blasted a home run over the leftfield fence to secure the program’s first national championship, the current team now looks to expand on that legacy — complete with its own chapter.