In its first home game since this spring’s Big Ten title-clinching series against Purdue, the Michigan softball team returned to form in an exhibition game against the National Pro Fastpitch All-Star team Thursday night.
Like last season, the Wolverine freshmen stepped up, as rookie shortstop Sierra Romero hit a game-tying two-run home run in the bottom of the fifth inning. In the bottom of the seventh with the bases loaded, NPF pitcher Jamee Juarez walked in senior second baseman Ashley Lane and Michigan won, 3-2. It was just the second loss in 49 games in the ‘Back to School’ tour for the NPF All-Stars.
The Wolverines had plenty of offensive production on the night. Romero headlined the Michigan offense, going a perfect 3-for-3 and finished just a triple short of the cycle. Junior center fielder Lyndsay Doyle went 3-for-4 and senior third baseman Amy Knapp went 2-for-3 as Michigan tallied total 12 hits.
But the Wolverines’ returning power hitter, sophomore pitcher Sara Driesenga — who will take a larger role in the offense after Michigan lost slugger Amanda Chidester to graduation — struggled. Driesenga struck out in all three of her at-bats.
“I’d like to see us hit with runners in scoring position a little better,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “Some of our key hitters, I think sometimes you can think too much, and we had a couple of our kids doing a little bit of that. But I was pleased to see people step in. This is the time of year you see who’s got what it takes.”
Hutchins was very pleased with her freshmen, but noted that Driesenga didn’t hurl her best game Thursday. Hutchins still has plenty of confidence in her sophomore’s all-around game — “We all know she’s a great hitter,” Hutchins said.
Reigning Big Ten Pitcher and Freshman of the Year sophomore Haylie Wagner pitched a solid four innings, and senior Stephanie Speierman and Driesenga finished up in relief. Wagner gave up one run on three hits and Speierman struck out two in her sole inning of work. Driesenga recorded the win.
Wagner took a while to find the strike zone at the beginning of the game, but Michigan’s defense helped her out as the Wolverines recorded a 1-2-3 first inning.
“Going into it, I was definitely nervous, probably the most nervous I’ve ever been,” Wagner said. “But once the game kept going, the adrenaline kept going, and my team had my back the entire time and just felt great afterwards.”
Thursday’s game was the first competitive game Michigan has played this fall, and Hutchins said it was good experience for the freshmen to play in a higher-stakes game. Michigan played five games in the Traverse City Collegiate Tournament last weekend.
“It’s just good for us to compete,” Hutchins said. “This is such a different environment than Traverse City … (a trip that) is very practice-oriented and this is very game-oriented. To practice competing, and to do it in a big-game environment, is a lot like the stretch of our season when the games matter.
“It was so fun to be on our field (with) the crowd we had. It was meant to be a big-game environment.”
The game also featured Michigan softball alum Nikki Nemitz, Thursday’s starting pitcher for NPF. Nemitz was an All-American as a junior and is a current volunteer assistant for the Wolverines in addition to playing for the Chicago Bandits in the NPF.
Hutchins and Nemitz were in contact over the summer when the deal between the NPF and Michigan was made to have the All-Stars stop in Ann Arbor in the fall, and Hutchins said Nemitz was “so excited” to return to Alumni Field.
When Nemitz was announced in the lineup before the game began, the crowd gave her a standing ovation to welcome her back to Ann Arbor.
“This place means a lot to these kids, and that she’s so excited to come back and be on this field is really meaningful,” Hutchins said. “I was excited for her and excited to see her again. It really made me smile when the crowd gave her the ovation when she was announced.”
Michigan will wrap up its fall play next Tuesday at Alumni Field against Eastern Michigan.