Bo Schembechler’s famous words, “Those who stay will be champions,” linger. But Schembechler never acknowledged what happens next. It’s those who stay after they claim their prize that remain champions.
Michigan coach Rich Maloney and his current fifth-year seniors were the Big Ten champions in 2008. But last season, they finished dead last, with a 17-37 overall record.
Still, they stayed, and they’re back this reason, ready to “Flip It.”
Maloney introduced the team motto at the Junge Family Champions Center during Wednesday’s Meet the Wolverines Night. It came in the form of a coin, representing the 180-degree turnaround it hopes to achieve.
“From last to first,” said senior catcher Coley Crank. “We don’t really want to dwell on last year.”
The Wolverines start out with a blank slate.
But their fresh start began as soon as the last pitch was thrown in last May. It signified the end of misfortune and the beginning of rehabilitation. Maloney and the team picked themselves up, remaining confident in “the system.”
The Wolverines made a few minor changes to their program, but continued to follow Maloney’s mantra, “Keep it simple, stupid.”
During his years at Western Michigan University, Maloney found himself, so to speak, “In Search of Excellence,” both literally and in literature. Struggling with the book’s concepts, he took away only one sentence and it became his philosophy.
He took that phrase and dissected it into two parts: fundamentals and greatness.
With the first, he recognizes the importance of mastering the basics.
“Make the routine play routinely,” Maloney said, quoting former Wolverine Barry Larkin.
He then elaborated on the second half, describing greatness as the “‘Work hard and then some’ mentality.”
So, to maintain simplicity, Maloney prepared for a new year and brought back a familiar face. Pitching coach Steve Merriman returned to Michigan’s coaching staff after spending much of his career in the major leagues.
Merriman came to Michigan for single-season appearances in 1995 and 2002. The Wolverines hope that he’s here to stay.
Sophomore outfielder Michael O’Neill has a personal relationship with Merriman, who scouted O’Neill when he was a high-school player. O’Neill feels that the coach’s professional attitude will only benefit the team.
O’Neill, along with junior outfielder Patrick Biondi and senior right-hander Brandon Sinnery, was recently named the Big Ten Conference’s Baseball Players to Watch list.
They earned their spots because of their strong individual performances last season, even though they were for a losing team.
In his rookie year, O’Neill recorded a .301 batting average while starting all 54 games for the Wolverines. More notably, he also led the league with 30 stolen bases, which broke Biondi’s freshman record.
Michigan had the one-two punch in that category, with Biondi trailing by three. But Biondi is not concerned with the numbers or ranks — he’s just anxious to get on base.
And he’ll have his first opportunity to do so, at the Big Ten-Big East Challenge against Pittsburgh, Seton Hall and West Virginia this weekend. All of those teams rank significantly higher than Michigan.
But the Wolverines will take the chip on their shoulders south to Florida with the confidence and expectation to sweep.
“If you don’t go in with that expectation, you’re probably going to lose them all,” Sinnery said.
The right-handed pitcher posted an ERA of 2.91 over 68 innings last season. He took the mound as the team’s ace, after seniors Kolby Wood and Travis Smith were injured in the first week of spring action.
That leadership translated into his recent election as one of the four team captains.
“I serve as just another lifeline,” Sinnery said. “But with that honor comes a lot of responsibility.”
Wood was renamed co-captain, though he and Smith are still finishing their recoveries. Maloney said they’re nearly healthy and pitching in the low 90-mph range.
There are a lot of factors that played a part in last season’s troubles. But Michigan is ready for redemption.
“(We want) to prove people wrong,” said O’Neill. “(We want) to show people it was a fluke.”