One never wants to stare too far down the road, but when looking at the Michigan softball team, it is tough not to follow that course.
As the No. 12 team in the nation, the Wolverines (8-2 Big Ten, 32-8 overall) are primed to make another run at the Women’s College World Series.
Last season they were Big Ten regular season champions, runners-up at the Big Ten Tournament, regional champions and a No. 4 seed at the WCWS before losing to No. 5 Oklahoma and No. 6 California.
Michigan then went on to lose outfielder Melissa Taylor (second team All-American, .455 batting average), pitcher Marie Barda (0.88 ERA, 20-8) and shortstop Rebecca Tune (.323 batting average, 15 doubles) to graduation.
The Big Ten also became deeper – only Indiana and Michigan State have sub-.500 records this season.
So why are the Wolverines looking like they picked up right where they left off last season?
Some answers may be the success of their freshmen, their ability to rebound from a poor outing and their fearlessness.
The freshmen duo of Nicole Motycka and Jessica Merchant came in to fill the roles of last season’s seniors, Barda and Tune. And thus far, no one has been disappointed, as the freshmen continue to come up clutch at the right times.
After a rough outing Saturday against Minnesota, in which she gave up three runs in two innings pitched, Motycka returned to form on Sunday with a complete game shutout against Wisconsin. The Badgers had beaten Michigan in the first game of the doubleheader, but Motycka shook the struggles and the pressure off with a laugh.
“I’d say she lightened up a little bit (Sunday),” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “I think she was better (Sunday), and once the whole team got something going, we got our old sense of humor back.”
Merchant was just 2-for-8 during the Wolverines doubleheader at Central Michigan last week, but it didn’t take long for her to find her find her stroke against Minnesota. She blasted her second home run of the season in the first inning of the weekend’s first game. Merchant went on to knock in four runs on the day and help the Wolverines to a 11-1 win. A lot can be said for Merchant’s glove as well. She has just six errors at the shortstop position this year.
“It’s amazing to be able to come and step in as a freshman, and it is a dream come true to put on the maize and blue and go out there and play every game,” Merchant said. “We’re playing solid defense all the way around, all nine spots on the field are playing great ‘D.’ (The pitching staff) is doing outstanding on the mound, so when they do hit the ball we get excited.”
Merchant and Motycka aren’t the only two to have rebounded, as the Wolverines have bounced back numerous times from a bad inning or a bad loss.
In the first weekend of the Big Ten season (March 30-31), Michigan recovered from a 1-0 loss to Penn State with a 3-0 shutout victory. The following day, the Wolverines faced No. 25 Ohio State – a team that Hutchins called the best in the conference. And for the first six-and-a-half innings Hutchins statement appeared to be correct as the Buckeyes took a 4-3 lead into the final inning thanks to two homers. While Ohio State had the bigger offensive weapons, Michigan won by playing fundamentally sound. An Ohio State error tied the game, and a bases-loaded walk won it for the Wolverines.
But even after a big win, like the 5-3 comeback against Minnesota on Saturday, Michigan has always maintained its focus. As a result, the Wolverines haven’t lost two straight games since the middle of February.
“We were too high emotionally (after Saturday), and we were hungover (Sunday) – we had an emotional hangover,” Hutchins said. “It’s a lot of energy spent everyday, but I thought we calmed back into it. And on not our best day, we pulled out a win against a good team (in Wisconsin).”
Finding a way to win when it doesn’t seem possible has been this team’s driving force, as each game a new hero has stepped to the plate or the mound. Whether it’s ace Marissa Young pitching a perfect game or Lisa Mack and Melinda Moulden getting grand slams on the same day from the bottom half of the lineup, this team has proven that it knows how to win.
With half of the Big Ten schedule remaining – including series against No. 20 Iowa and Northwestern, which is fourth in the Big Ten – there are still plenty of questions to be answered.
But so far, the Wolverines have swept the Big Ten’s best offensive team (Ohio State) and the conference’s best pitching team (Minnesota). So it’s not illogical to think that they can topple the powerful Hawkeyes and the upstart Wildcats to finish atop the Big Ten standings.
“When you’re playing Northwestern and Iowa (in one weekend) you better not forget about Northwestern – and we won’t,” Hutchins said.