Walk around the athletic campus, and, if you don’t know where Alumni Field is, you may never find it. After all, it’s practically hidden, boxed in by Yost Ice Arena, The Fish and Oosterbaan Fieldhouse.
And that’s too bad because the Michigan softball team has already had a special year, and its home and conference season has just begun.
First of all, the Wolverines are currently ranked No. 1 in the country. To understand how remarkable that is, take a look at their travel itinerary.
Michigan’s season began in Las Vegas on Feb. 12 (back when those shorts you’ve been wearing lately were buried in your closet). In the following weeks it traveled to Florida, Georgia, Florida (again), California and Kentucky. During that stretch the Wolverines played a total of 32 games and, after losing the season opener, won 31 straight.
That takes us to last Monday, March the 28th, when they practiced … outdoors … in Ann Arbor … for the first time this season.
Until then, the team had been practicing in Oosterbaan Fieldhouse. While the players don’t use it as an excuse (about half the team is from the Midwest and doesn’t know any better), the white walls, artificial turf and fly-ball-interrupting roof sure don’t make things any easier.
Yet for nearly two months, Michigan criss-crossed the country and beat teams that could roll out of bed on Christmas and have a practice in the same weather that has us currently celebrating.
“I’m not even sure what teams do outside all the time,” said shortstop Jessica Merchant, who holds Michigan’s career home run record. “Practicing inside, we can’t hit fly balls or scrimmage or things like that. But we spend three months working on fundamentals, and that seems to work.”
Michigan’s current No. 1 ranking and record (35-2 after losing the home opener and then bouncing back to win the next three) doesn’t quite do justice to the team’s dominance.
The Wolverines have outscored their opponents 221-42, a ratio of over five to one. They have bashed 55 home runs, which already sets a school record with 22 regular-season games to go. They have three No. 1 pitchers in Nicole Motycka, Jennie Ritter and Lorilyn Wilson, who have struck out a combined 333 batters and have a collective ERA of 0.86.
Coach Carol Hutchins has been winning here for over 20 years and recently became just the eighth coach in Division I history to win 900 games.
Though winning certainly helps, the softball team — unlike any other Michigan team I’ve seen — always seems to be enjoying itself on the field. Whether it’s Grace Leutele sheepishly smiling after strong winds turned a sure flyout into a double or Stephanie Bercaw literally skipping around the bases after hitting a home run or the entire infield high-fiving at the mound after each out, the players are always relaxed.
“That’s always been a mark of a Michigan team,” Hutchins said. “I think it helps us win — sometimes we win because we have fun. I think it’s important. It’s when they start to get uptight they struggle.”
Unfortunately, not all the news is good. If you weren’t at last weekend’s games, you may have missed your chance to see the team play. The Wolverines don’t play any more home games until exam week, and, while they’ll probably host the Big Ten Tournament and an NCAA Regional, most of the student body won’t be around.
Don’t worry, though, because the team has plenty of support, whether it’s from the players’ families, the people who are my grandparents’ age (they come out in full force for this team) or the families with young daughters. There’s even a pep band that makes appearances from time to time.
But now, if there’s a national championship trophy in Ann Arbor when you come back in the fall, you don’t have an excuse not to know.
Sharad Mattu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.