There is nothing like two heartbreaking losses to sour a team’s attitude. But for the Michigan softball team, the opposite has been true.
After two tough losses in last year’s Women’s College World Series, the Wolverines have taken a more laid back attitude onto the diamond. The result has been a school-record 27 consecutive victories and the first No. 1 ranking in school history.
“I think that we’re having fun this year,” senior shortstop Jessica Merchant said. “I think that’s why we’ve played so well, because we’re relaxed and we’re having fun.”
Michigan (27-1 overall) catapulted from No. 4 in last week’s poll to the top spot after knocking off then-No. 1 Arizona, 6-2, in the championship game of the Kia Classic last weekend in Fullerton, Calif. The Wolverines haven’t lost a game since dropping their opener to then-No. 17 Baylor on Feb. 11.
Michigan is only the fourth school — and first outside the Pac 10 Conference — voted to the top spot in the ESPN.com/USA Softball poll in its three-year history, and will put its winning streak on the line this weekend at the Courtyard by Mariott Louisville Classic in Louisville, Kent.
Last season in the World Series, life wasn’t as easy for the Wolverines — they suffered back-to-back crushing defeats to Louisiana State and Stanford.
In its opener against Louisiana State, Michigan gained and then gave up a two-run lead in the 12th inning before losing 3-2 in the 13th on one of the most bizarre plays in World Series history. With a runner on first, Merchant fielded a ground ball between shortstop and third but misfired on her throw to first. Right fielder Courtney Betley backed up the play and threw home to keep the runner at third, but catcher Monica Schock was unable to handle her throw and Louisiana State’s Sara Fitzgerald scored the winning run.
“I think a little bit more when I field those backhands and throw to first base,” Merchant said jokingly. “It’s definitely a motivating factor. You work that hard and you get so close and have the talent and the team to do it, but a couple of bad bounces and it’s over.”
A 5-4 loss to Stanford knocked the Wolverines out of the tournament two days later when Schock was a split-second late on her tag at home plate, which again resulted in the winning run.
But this season, the players aren’t letting those bad bounces get to them.
“I don’t think you can pinpoint it, but I was talking to one of the girls that graduated and I told her, ‘It’s just different,’ ” Ritter said. “I don’t know if it’s more laid back, but we have a different attitude. Even if the bounces don’t go our way, there’s nothing you can do. As long as we go out and compete hard every day, we’ll give ourselves a great chance to win every ball game we’re in.”
The change in approach has even spilled over into the stands.
“(Michigan coach Carol Hutchins) always jokes about the parents because they get so excited for us this year,” junior third baseman Grace Leutele said. “I think, because they can see us having fun, they have fun watching us play like that. If we’re tight on the field, I bet if you go up in the stands, the parents are going to be tight too. It’s like a reflex all the way around.”
Michigan is making its second straight trip to the Louisville Classic, where they went 4-0 last season, including a 4-2 victory over the host Cardinals.