As the ball jumped off Northwestern’s Garland Cooper’s bat and slowly rolled to Michigan shortstop Jessica Merchant, the crowd at Alumni Field rose to its feet. Merchant smoothly fielded the ball, switched it to her throwing hand and snapped the ball to freshman Samantha Findlay to capture the final out in yesterday’s Big Ten title-clinching win against Northwestern 8-7.
Entering the weekend series against the Wildcats, the Wolverines (15-2 Big Ten, 52-4 overall) needed a sweep to win the regular-season Big Ten title. The No. 1 Michigan softball team came back to beat Northwestern yesterday after earning a 3-0 shutout Saturday to become the Big Ten regular-season champions.
“I really wanted to win,” freshman Alessandra Giampaolo said. “I thought this team could win the championship, and we pulled it out. We all worked together, and the whole team did it.”
In the first inning, the Wildcats (15-3, 37-14) scored off junior pitcher Jennie Ritter. After a passed ball advanced Northwestern’s base runners to second and third, the Wildcats’ Jamie Dotson hit a sacrifice fly to centerfield, scoring Stephanie Churchill.
Northwestern added another run in the second inning, but the Michigan bats came to life in third inning. Giampaolo hit a two-run homer to right centerfield, tying the game at two.
The Wildcats responded in the bottom of the inning when Churchill singled and then Cooper doubled off the base of the wall in left centerfield. With runners on second and third, Dotson drove in Churchill with a single through the left side of the infield. Then Kristen Salamon skied a sacrifice fly into rightfield, scoring Cooper and regaining a two-run lead.
After allowing four runs in three innings, Ritter was replaced by sophomore Lorilyn Wilson in the fourth inning. Wilson gave the Wolverines a sorely needed spark, and she retired the next six Wildcats in a row.
“Lorilyn came up with two huge shutout innings,” Merchant said. “Northwestern had scored in every inning until Lorilyn came in. She did great today.”
In the bottom of the sixth inning, the Wolverines scored six runs with two outs to pull ahead of Northwestern.
After junior Grace Leutele grounded out, junior Stephanie Bercaw walked. Following junior Becky Marx’s strikeout, sophomore Rebekah Milian started the Michigan rally with an infield single.
With runners on first and second, junior Tiffany Haas stepped to the plate — already 0-3 on the day. Haas didn’t wait long to break out of her slump. She shot the first pitch that she saw to the base of the wall in left centerfield. The triple drove in Bercaw and Milian to tie the game at four. Michigan added four more runs before Leutele struck out.
Although she was armed with an 8-4 lead, Wilson struggled in the bottom of the sixth inning. Northwestern narrowed the Wolverines’ lead to one when Shelia McCorkle hit a three-run homer that reached the pine trees in left centerfield.
Not waiting to see if Wilson could bounce back from the home run, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins reinserted Ritter to finish the game.
In the final two innings, Ritter regained the dominating form that she has displayed throughout the season. The junior didn’t allow a hit while striking out three of the final six Wildcat batters.
“Jennie was outstanding again,” Hutchins said. “It’s tough to come back into a game and pitch to the top of Northwestern’s lineup in the seventh inning.”
Michigan won its 10th regular-season Big Ten Championship in the past 14 years, but Hutchins believes this year’s team will be able to carry its momentum into the postseason.
“I couldn’t be prouder of them,” Hutchins said. “I just don’t want them to relax on this. The seniors kept this team focused all year, and I don’t believe the (Big Ten regular-season title) will phase them.”
The Wolverines will host the Big Ten Tournament starting on Thursday.