Just hours after going from controlling its Big Ten destiny to having its title hopes become slim to none, the Michigan softball team faced a gutcheck.
After coming close all day long, the Wolverines finally got over the hump, responding to the gutcheck and showing the fight that marked the team’s performance last season.
No. 12 Michigan (12-4 Big Ten, 34-13 overall) kept its dwindling Big Ten title hopes alive after forcing a split with first-place Northwestern (14-3, 36-11). The Wolverines’ sixth-inning breakthrough in Sunday’s second contest gave them the game’s lone two runs in a 2-0 victory that snapped the Wildcats’ 11-game winning streak.
Just an inning after stranding runners on second and third, Michigan faced the same scenario in the sixth.
The Wolverines wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
With senior Becky Marx on third and sophomore Samantha Findlay on second following a double and a single, respectively, senior Grace Leutele stepped up to the plate. Despite going hitless in her first five plate appearances, Leutele remained confident, taking an Eileen Canney pitch and driving it in between third and short to plate Marx.
Findlay soon followed Marx, scoring the next at-bat on a single by junior Tiffany Worthy.
“You can’t get down, you have to fight every pitch, and we did come back and fight that inning,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said.
The win salvaged what had become a somber afternoon for Michigan. With a sweep, the Wolverines would have retaken first place in the conference. But Northwestern wasn’t ready to relinquish its spot atop the Big Ten, learning from last year’s mistakes.
This time, the 14th-ranked Wildcats’ roar was heard early in the afternoon, as they scored two runs in the first inning of the opener. After watching her three teammates load the bases in front of her, cleanup batter Jamie Dotson drove a fly ball that found the glove of Wolverine leftfielder Rebekah Milian. The junior threw home to try and double up tagging runner Katie Logan, but the ball caromed off Logan’s leg at the plate and allowed Tammy Williams to also score all the way from second base.
Those two runs proved to be enough, as Michigan was able to drive in just one of its seven baserunners for the game. Sophomore Alessandra Giampaolo scored following a Stephanie Bercaw bunt that was thrown away by Dotson in the second inning.
For the day, Michigan left 12 runners on the basepads. It failed to get any RBI until the Leutele’s single in the second game.
“It’s just how the year goes,” Marx said. “Last year, everything fell in place for (us). This year, (we) have to fight for everything; nothing is falling into place for (us). The bloopers aren’t going in, the homers aren’t going over and plays like (the first inning play at the plate) happen. It’s just a lot harder this season; things aren’t on our side.”
The loss in the opener may have been charged to senior Jennie Ritter, but she followed a shaky first inning with 13 innings of near-perfection. The Dexter native allowed just one earned run and struck out 24 batters on the day, an afternoon in which she threw over 200 pitches.
“Jennie Ritter gave us a chance to win both of those games, and we just didn’t get it done,” Hutchins said.
Ritter’s battery mate agreed.
“She was determined,” Marx said of Ritter. “She threw Friday and Saturday and then twice (on Sunday). I mean, who can do that? You can’t hang your head on that performance. Win or lose, you can’t.”
Michigan still has a slight chance at its third-consecutive Big Ten regular season title. The Wolverines must sweep rival Michigan State next weekend and hope that Northwestern loses both games when it travels to take on Illinois. One Wildcat victory will give Northwestern the outright title.
Michigan swept Illinois this weekend, topping the Illini 5-0 and 3-1 on Friday and Saturday, respectively. Ritter collected both wins, and her record now stands at 22-6.
Ritter was one of the five seniors honored during the Senior-Day festivities in between the two games. She was honored along with teammates Stephanie Bercaw, Tiffany Haas, Leutele and Marx. Though the quintet will be forever remembered for their contributions to last season’s national championship run, Hutchins hopes their story at Michigan will be added with another strong finish this season.
“They’ve had a fabulous career for us, fabulous,” Hutchins said. “I just want them to go out with their best effort possible.”