For the past eight postseasons, Ann Arbor has been a hub for postseason softball.
And Friday afternoon, when No. 2 seed Michigan (46-6) hosts its NCAA regional for the ninth time in as many years, that tradition will persist.
Alumni Field is one of the 16 regional venues for the 64-team tournament, and coming to town is Notre Dame (45-10), Illinois State (32-18) and Wright State (30-28-1).
The three-day regional will be a two-game elimination tournament, and the last team standing will face off against the winner of Tennessee’s regional in a best-of-three super-regional series. The winning team of that set goes on to the eight-team Women’s College World Series.
Scouting the competition: No. 1 seed Michigan will face off against No. 4 seed Wright State on Friday at 7:00pm.
The postseason is a relatively new experience for the Raiders, as all of their four NCAA Tournament appearances have come within the last eight years. The Wolverines hold a 3-0 record against them all-time, which includes a 13-5 thumping in the 2008 regional opener.
Michigan will see some familiar faces, as the three Wright State hitters that drove in runs in that game will all be on the field on Friday.
And this time, the Raiders are streaking.
“Wright State is obviously hot — they just won the (Horizon League) conference,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “They’re very fast. They have around 130 stolen bases. We’re not taking them lightly.”
But Michigan will likely be more focused on No. 2 seed Notre Dame, which was the only team to significantly challenge Wolverine hitters in last year’s Ann Arbor regional.
In the first of their two meetings, Fighting Irish pitching shutout Wolverine batters through six innings and maintained a 1-0 lead heading into seventh. Leading off the final frame, third baseman Maggie Viefhaus drove a 1-2 pitch over the right field fence to knot it up at one apiece. Later in the inning, outfielder Bree Evans flared an RBI single to left seal the deal.
This year, Notre Dame comes to Alumni Field with an even stronger team, and they’ve lost just two starters since last season.
But the Wolverines don’t seem too concerned.
“I honestly don’t know much about how they’ve been playing,” junior first baseman Dorian Shaw said. “I know that their record is better this year, but I think it’s more about us. If we do the things that we’re capable of, we shouldn’t stumble.”
Feels good to be home: Visiting teams aren’t fans of trekking to Alumni Field.
The team hasn’t lost a home game since 2008, when Virginia Tech triumphed in the super regional series. Since then, the Wolverines have won 34 straight games at home, including all five postseason matchups in last year’s campaign.
But past success at home comes with high expectations from Michigan fans.
“I told them right before I let them go today that the expectation is on you,” Hutchins said. “Everybody expects you to win. And the only thing we can do is expect to work hard. And expect it to be difficult.”
Nonetheless, the players are relieved to simply play at home — they’ve endured a brutal schedule that’s had them staying in hotels for roughly 30 nights over the last 90 days.
Pitching strategy up in the air: In years past, especially in the Jennie Ritter years, Hutchins has used one pitcher almost exclusively in the postseason.
At this point, the coach seems unsure of her plans for her pitching duo of senior Nikki Nemitz and junior Jordan Taylor, though she does plan on getting both of them into games at some point.
“I’m certain they’re both going to see some time, and we’re going to pitch accordingly,” Hutchins said. “We’re going to use whatever it takes to win.”
On paper, Taylor does appear to be the stronger pitching candidate, but it would be tough to decide between the two of them. Taylor finished up the season with a 24-3 record and a 1.43 ERA, while Nemitz is 20-3 with a 1.67.
All-Big Ten team almost an All-Michigan team: On Wednesday afternoon, the Big Ten announced its all-conference players.
Sharing the Player of the Year honors are Nemitz and Viefhaus while Pitcher of the Year was given to Taylor.
Making first team was Viefhaus, Nemitz, Taylor, senior outfielder Angela Findlay and Evans.
Shaw and senior utility Molly Bausher made the second team, as sophomore second baseman Amanda Chidester and senior catcher Roya St. Clair made the third team.
The only Michigan starter who didn’t make the cut was sophomore shortstop Stephanie Kirkpatrick, who was out with a meniscus tear for a large portion of the season.