On what seemed like a typical day last summer, Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins was in her kitchen when someone on an early-morning news program caught her eye.
Arizona and U.S. Olympic team coach Mike Candrea was explaining a new hitting drill that his Olympic players used to see the ball better and hit the ball more squarely with their bats.
After viewing the television program, Hutchins met with assistant coach Jennifer Brundage to discuss the merits of the drill and how it could help the Michigan players in the upcoming season. Since Brundage played with some of the Olympians in the 2000 Olympics, Hutchins sent her to find out the details of the drill.
Brundage was not able to contact the players immediately, since they were playing in the Olympics. But she finally found out what the drill entailed.
Hutchins then went to the company that made the pitching machine to discover that the machine cost $9,000. The company insisted that, in order to enjoy the full benefits from the drill, Hutchins needed the machine — it fired tennis balls at a speed of 150 miles per hour. Discouraged by the high price, Hutchins decided to use a tennis ball machine that “only” launches the balls at 90 miles per hour.
“I said ‘no’ to the expensive machine,” Hutchins said. “(With the tennis ball machine) we’re just going to it the best that we can, and, if the ball only comes in at 90 miles per hour, then we’ll still get better.”
The drill contains several components. Delivered by a pitching machine, different colored tennis balls with varying numbers written on them are hit by the players. When the player hits the ball, she must identify the location on the bat where the ball hit, the color of the ball and the number written on it.
With the recognition that the players make as they swing, they are able to improve their hand-eye coordination. Armed with a better sight of the pitch and spin of the ball, the players could get better bat-on-ball contact, creating harder hitting.
“One thing that is my players’ biggest complaint is that they just aren’t seeing the ball,” Hutchins said. “As Mike Candrea puts it, ‘We work very hard on hitting, and the tools of hitting are the bat, the hands and the eyes.’ ”
While some of the players were skeptical about it initially, the new drill has paid dividends this season.
Senior Nicole Motycka came into this season with career numbers of a .274 batting average, seven home runs, a .419 slugging percentage, 74 hits and 35 RBI. But — 43 games into this year — Motycka has already bettered many of those statistics. She currently sports a .362 batting average, and has nine home runs, a .614 slugging percentage, 46 hits and 30 RBI.
“I had heard good things (about the drill),” Motycka said. “My problem has always been seeing the ball. This drill has obviously helped me, because I feel more comfortable at the bat now than I ever have.”
Junior Tiffany Haas credits the tennis ball drill in helping her ability to see and hit the ball. With the three quarters of the season complete, she has struck out just twice this year — compared to 34 times last season. Haas also boasts a .400 batting average and a .419 on base percentage which are both career bests.
“I believe it’s working,” Haas said. “It seems to work real well because the ball is smaller (than a softball). If you can see that then you can see a softball.”
As a team, the Wolverines are enjoying a banner year offensively. They lead the Big Ten in slugging percentage (.535), runs scored (258), hits (372), RBIs (224), total bases (624) and home runs (64). In the home run category, Michigan not only leads the Big Ten in home runs but also holds the school record for home runs in a season, eclipsing the old mark of 46 in the series against Iowa earlier this season.
“I think that it’s helped,” Hutchins said. “I can guarantee you that we’re going to stay with it. Next fall, we’ll pick it back up and start over. We’ll probably study up on it during the summer to investigate it even further.”