Carol Hutchins has been Michigan’s softball coach for decades. Everybody knows that. She has won 17 Big Ten regular-season conference championships, 16 NCAA regional championships and a national championship in 2005. She’s in the NFCA Hall of Fame, too.
Michigan softball’s inaugural season was in 1978. By 1985, Hutchins was the head coach, and has been the general to lead the Wolverines into battle ever since. Entering the 2015 season, Hutchins has amassed a career 1,349-452 record and a .746 win percentage.
With Hutchins at the helm, there will always be talk of league championships, of winning streaks that stretch into the 20s and of making a run in the postseason NCAA Women’s College World Series.
With her résumé and the program’s continued success, it’s obvious that the Wolverines should have no trouble putting together a respectable season. Undoubtedly, Michigan will add to Hutchins’ win total. But really, the number of wins won’t matter. For Team 38, the last win of the season will be the one that carries the most significance.
Hutchins is the grand master behind the chessboard, and has all the pieces in place to make a championship run. But ultimately, it’s the players, not the coach, who execute the plan of attack.
Michigan, even with a legendary coach and a lineup full of stars, lost to the No. 1 Florida Gators to open the season. It served as a reminder for the Wolverines that despite their perennial status as a member of softball’s elite, beating champions, or even becoming them, is never an easy task.
This Michigan team has already taken some lumps. Against Florida, it was senior left-hander and 2014 second-team All-American Haylie Wagner who threw a wild pitch to let a Gator baserunner score from third and clinch the game.
But it was only one bad pitch, and only one game, the first in a long season.
By Spring Break, Michigan had built a 19-game win streak, and had hit 20 home runs through five games at the Arizona State Slugger Invitational, but fell in back-to-back games to then-No. 22 Arizona State, and again to Florida.
Against Florida, Michigan had chances to even up its head-to-head record, jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the first and holding on until the sixth when Florida scored three runs to earn its first lead. Michigan was unable to conjure up any offense and did nothing against the Gator’s in the seventh, losing 3-2.
It’s worth noting that the Spring Break losses to Florida and Arizona State came at the end of a long road trip for Michigan, at which point the Wolverines had flown to every game they had played. But when the Wolverines finally got back to Ann Arbor, after some much-needed rest, the first home game ended in disappointment, too.
Kent State, the Wolverines’ only unranked loss, squeaked away with a win behind junior right-hander Emma Johnson and her .96 earned-run average to upset Michigan, 3-0.
Statistically, the Wolverines are already among the best in the Big Ten in multiple categories, but again, the Wolverines’ ability to compete at an elite level isn’t what is in question. At times, Michigan has looked deserving of its ranking, and before the losses to Arizona State and Florida in early March, it was primed to move up in the rankings even further. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, timing is everything.
No one calls into question the ability or character of anyone on the Michigan coaching staff, and no one should. But in the few times when Michigan has been faced with truly top-tier competition, mainly against Kent State’s Johnson and Florida, it has stumbled.
It’s an old cliché in sports that a good team has to beat the teams it’s supposed to beat, and there’s zero doubt Michigan will continue to do that. What will define this team are the games Michigan isn’t “supposed” to win, when they’ll be evenly matched.
Michigan is very good, there’s no doubt about that. But how the Wolverines grow from the early-season losses, and more importantly, how they respond in future high-pressure situations, will ultimately determine the outcome of this season. Should they capitalize, they will have the possibility to be great once again under Hutchins’ watch.
Tyler Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org