Despite the Michigan softball team’s newly acquired No. 1 ranking, Penn State wasn’t intimidated when the Wolverines rolled into town.
But by the time Wednesday’s doubleheader ended, the Nittany Lions were happy to part ways with Michigan (9-1 Big Ten, 41-3 overall) as the Wolverines’ finished their visit to State College with a pair of 5-4 wins.
Even with the top ranking putting a bullseye on the team’s back, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins refused to acknowledge any external pressure on the Wolverines’ shoulders.
“Pressure is perception, and if we have pressure, we’re putting it on ourselves,” Hutchins said. “If (we’re) in the process that I want us to be in, you don’t care about rankings. You don’t care about anything but the moment.”
The afternoon game was a back-and-forth affair. In the top of the third, the Wolverines jumped past Penn State (5-7, 23-19) with a 2-0 lead. Senior first baseman Dorian Shaw clubbed a single to left field, scoring the game’s first run. Later in the inning, a sacrifice fly from sophomore second baseman Ashley Lane brought home freshman outfielder Nicole Sappingfield.
But senior pitcher Jordan Taylor struggled in the home half of the inning, allowing a pair of consecutive singles before retiring the next two Nittany Lions. It seemed as if she may make it out of the inning with no damage done, but Penn State first baseman Kailyn Johnson sprang hopes of a major upset by crushing a three-run homerun to right field.
The Nittany Lions maintained their one-run lead over Michigan until the top of the sixth when a two-out rally provided the Wolverines with a chance to retake the lead. Junior center fielder Bree Evans slapped an RBI single into right field, tying the game at three. Michigan got some help when a crucial error by Penn State on a routine hit from Sappingfield allowed the go-ahead run to cross the plate.
Penn State managed to manufacture a run in the bottom of the sixth. A single, a passed ball and another single was all it took for the Nittany Lions to knot the game up at 4. It seemed like the Wolverines’ six-game win streak was in jeopardy.
But Michigan was not going to let its top ranking slip away so quickly. Junior third baseman Amanda Chidester crushed the first pitch she saw over the fence for a solo shot that gave the Wolverines a 5-4 lead that would stick. Taylor was dominant in the ninth, retiring three Nittany Lions in order, and game one was in the books.
The nightcap started promisingly enough for Michigan, as the bats exploded in a three-run first inning. Chidester once again boosted the Wolverines, knocking a two-run double into the right center-field gap. Two batters later, a base hit from freshman catcher Caitlin Blanchard — behind the plate for both Wednesday games — scored Chidester and Michigan led 3-0 before Penn State could blink.
But the Nittany Lions were quick to respond as Michigan sophomore starter Stephanie Speierman struggled at the start of the game. Penn State grabbed two of the runs back and it looked like the Wolverines were in for another hotly contested battle — until Speierman settled in.
From that point on, Speierman worked quickly and effectively, shutting down the Nittany Lion lineup while racking up eight strikeouts. She also received run support from her teammates, as two runs in the fourth inning gave Michigan a 5-2 lead.
Speierman was tested in the bottom of the sixth when, after walking the leadoff batter, she surrendered a double, giving Penn State two runners in scoring position with no outs. That’s when Hutchins decided to end Speierman’s day and in came Taylor to close out the game.
“(For Speierman), it’s a matter of trust — in her team and in herself,” Hutchins said.
Though one mistake could mean trouble for her team, Taylor pitched like she had nothing to lose. The next three batters went down in order and the Nittany Lion rally was dead.
But Penn State wouldn’t go away. In their last at-bats, the Nittany Lions used a base knock and a two-run homerun off Taylor to pull within one run of the Wolverines. With two outs, however, it would be too little, too late for Penn State as a routine grounder to Shaw completed Michigan’s sweep in State College.
“We were lucky to get out of there with two wins,” Hutchins said. “We aren’t playing our best one-pitch softball at the moment.”
Next up for the Wolverines is a two-game weekend series against Iowa beginning Saturday at Alumni Field. A conference crown is well within Michigan’s grasp, and two wins against the Hawkeyes would go a long way to secure it.