It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Michigan softball team is on top of the Big Ten for the fifth-consecutive season.
But what is surprising is that the 22nd-ranked Wolverines will not be hosting an NCAA Regional for the first time since 2001.
The reason? They didn’t win enough games.
Michigan went through a strenuous nonconference schedule, playing 22 games in warm-weather states over the course of about a month.
This season, Michigan faced eight then-ranked teams — including teams from Florida, California and Arizona — going 4-4 en route to a 21-10 nonconference record.
But in past years, Michigan has dominated nonconference games. Just last year, the Wolverines went 33-2 out-of-conference, beating then-No.6 Arizona and then-No.7 Arizona State — the only two ranked teams they faced all regular season. The 2010 squad was just as dominant, beating eight of 12 then-ranked teams in the nonconference schedule.
But just because the 2012 Wolverines didn’t fare as well against nonconference opponents — ranked or unranked — doesn’t mean they are any worse than in years past. They may be better.
Don’t doubt the Wolverines.
When you are a part of a team that has known nothing but dominance and are coached by the winningest coach in your school’s history, you expect to win. But this year’s squad found out that winning games isn’t a given and that losing isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Michigan faced tough losses early in the season, dropping games to mid-major teams in Illinois State and Western Michigan. The Wolverines also lost two consecutive conference series to Minnesota and Illinois, something they haven’t had to deal with in past years.
Though those games had a negative impact on their ranking — Michigan dropped from 15th to 23rd over the course of the season — it was ultimately positive. The Wolverines found their weaknesses and adjusted. Most importantly, they found out they aren’t invincible.
Michigan realized that its pitching isn’t as dominant as last year, as it replaced Team USA member Jordan Taylor with two freshmen. The duo of Haylie Wagner and Sara Driesenga is one of the best in the Big Ten, but they are missing the experience and confidence in the circle that Taylor had.
They have improved over the season, though. Driesenga has controlled her release and Wagner has learned to relax and be show confidence in the circle. Neither of them can replace Taylor, but they have matured, and it will be evident in post-season play.
The offense has been also questionable at times, going for a season-high 16 hits against Ohio State then faltering against Western Michigan in a game where it mustered just four hits.
Michigan coach Carol Hutchins has emphasized the importance of being patient at the plate and waiting for “your pitch” all season, but the team just wasn’t listening at times.
But a new batting order has inspired confidence and patience at the plate in recent games. The Wolverines tallied 14 hits against Wisconsin on May 5, and had 23 total against the Boilermakers this past weekend.
These improvements — stemmed from early losses and setbacks this season — haven’t been as prevalent in past seasons, but are what makes Michigan just as dangerous as they have been in the past.
Instead of dominating its competition, the Wolverines are just like everyone else — learning and growing from their mistakes. And that’s not a bad thing.
“We’re not supposed to win,” Hutchins said. “We’re going to be the underdog. And I can’t wait to be the underdog.”