Grace Leutele sat at the postgame press conference smiling and joking alongside teammates Jennie Ritter and Alessandra Giampaolo after the Wolverines won their third-consecutive regional title on Sunday afternoon.

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The trio of girls didn’t look stressed or overwhelmed, or even relieved at the fact that they had just moved one step closer to a return trip to the College World Series. They were just having fun, acting in the postgame just as they did during the game, and just like they have done during the past few weeks as the season came to a close.

“At the end of the season, it’s crunch time,” Leutele said just after her game-winning two-run homerun. “I think that our team in general just lights up. I don’t think it’s just me, I think everybody (steps up).”

Stepping up and end of the season aren’t phrases that have been used in the same thought much this year, unless, of course someone was trying to cope with disappointment by using sarcasm.

All school year long, teams at Michigan have dropped the ball, especially on the biggest stages they perform on.

The lasting images from the past school year are anything but positive when it comes to the “Big Three” Maize and Blue sports teams.

Everyone remembers watching the football team put the cherry on top of the disappointment sundae that was its 2005 season. A 7-5 finish isn’t exactly the proper way to follow up back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances.

And who can forget the stomach-punch feeling all of the hockey fans in Ann Arbor got when its young and promising team went from No. 1 in the nation to consistently inconsistent after suffering from the growing pains that playing 11 freshman will provide.

But maybe the biggest downer came from the men’s basketball team. After years of mediocrity, the Cagers seemed to finally be putting everything together. But a 16-3 start turned out to just be another glimpse into what could be, not what would be, and the Wolverines were once again left out of the Big Dance after a season-ending collapse.

So as I was leaving Madison Square Garden after the men’s basketball team completed the disappointment trifecta in March, I would have probably told you the chances of the University salvaging a decent year in sports were about as good as Marissa Cooper making it out of season three of the O.C. alive.

But two months later, the disaster that was Michigan sports this past year can at least be mended to respectability.

Sounds like a lot to ask a group of 19- to 23-year-old women to take on their shoulders. Isn’t that just more unnecessary pressure on a team that probably has a lot to deal with already?

The defending national champs seem to have the weight of an entire university on its shoulders as it embarks on its quest for a repeat.

But compared to last year, it’s almost a step down. The Wolverines had the unenviable task of representing everyone East of the Mississippi in its attempt to be the first team to win in a West Coast-dominated sport.

It’s a welcome change to see a Michigan team stepping up when the pressure is on. And while it’s not fair that the softball team has to carry the weight of saving a disappointing sports season for Michigan on its shoulders, this is the one team I would want in this position.

It may be unenviable, but it’s not unreachable. At least not with this team.

– Bell can be reached at scotteb@umich.edu.

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