This is the moment that the Wolverine faithful have been waiting for. The Michigan softball team has reached its final destination: the Women’s College World Series championship.
But to win the WCWS, the Wolverines (21-2 Big Ten, 59-6 overall) will need to trump No. 1 Florida in a best two out of three series. The teams sit atop the NCAA in win percentage, and the context behind the matchup couldn’t be more perfect, as Michigan narrowly fell to the Gators (18-5 SEC, 58-6 overall) twice during its preseason.
Florida is a big obstacle to overcome, but that doesn’t mean that the Wolverines who are boasting a 28 game win streak aren’t confident about their opportunity to bring a national championship back to Ann Arbor.
“All year we had a goal. Our goal wasn’t just to make it to Oklahoma City,” said sophomore third baseman Lindsay Montemarano. “It was to win the championship game. And Florida is a great team. We’ve played them this year and had great battles with them. We can’t focus on them. We have to focus on us and we’ll be okay.”
The first thing that people think of when they talk about the Gators is senior right-hander Lauren Haeger. The veteran hurler has been doing it on both ends and is carrying Florida through the WCWS.
Haeger has pitched every inning, allowing just 17 hits and tallying 14 strikeouts. On the offensive end, she has gone 3-for-8 with two home runs and three runs batted in.
And despite entering the tournament ranking 10th in team batting average, catcher Aubree Munro has stepped up on the biggest stage. In the three games leading up to the championship, Munro has accumulated a .429 batting average, .203 higher than her average in the respective category to start the tournament.
Florida is in the top five of just two NCAA statistical categories, but that is a testament to its balance in all aspects of the game. The categories they are in the top five for, however, are impressive. The Gators boast the best fielding percentage in the nation and are fifth in earned-run average. The moral of the story is that Florida won’t beat itself, and Michigan will need to treat any lead they gain with care on the defensive end, because runs won’t be easy to come by.
Given how precious a lead could be in this championship series, the Wolverines will need their two hurlers to pitch some of the best games of their careers.
Senior left-hander Haylie Wagner has stolen the show this tournament and is on a mission to carry her side to a national championship. In the 9.2 innings that Wagner has pitched, she has allowed just six hits, no earned runs and has put 10 batters down on strikes.
“Two years ago I didn’t get to pitch in the World Series,” Wagner said. “Coming out here I knew my chance was going to come. When it was coming I was going to do my best. I’m at the World Series and I’m just going to leave it all out on the field.”
Though sophomore right-hander Megan Betsa excelled in Michigan’s first matchup of the WCWS against Alabama, she has struggled in her last two appearances. In her last two games, Michigan’s go-to has pitched just 4.1 innings while allowing seven hits and six earned runs.
Despite Betsa’s struggles, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins still has faith in both members of her pitching staff.
“We don’t have to live and die with one pitcher, and they’ve been a fantastic tandem,” Hutchins said. “(Betsa) needs to not focus on the opponent. She needs to stay focused on us because we’re the only people on the field that matter. And she needs to throw pitches, and I think she might be a little bit focused on the opponents because we were facing some pretty darned good (teams).”
On the offensive end, it has really been more of the same for the hard-hitting Wolverines. They are averaging seven runs per game and it has primarily been a balanced effort through the lineup. Michigan’s upperclassmen have been providing most of the spark at the plate, ranging from senior catcher Lauren Sweet’s grand slam against Alabama to junior centerfielder Sierra Lawrence’s momentum swinging RBI double in the top of the sixth against LSU.
The Wolverines have a long tunnel ahead of them, but at the end of that tunnel is a coveted national championship. The matchup may be daunting, but they are two wins away from winning their first WCWS since 2005.