Replacing a senior leader is not an easy task in any sport. It’s even harder if you lose an National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-America second-team pitcher who led your squad with a 31-5 record, 1.51 ERA, 12 shutouts and 340 strikeouts last season. That player is current Team USA member Jordan Taylor.
That’s the task the Michigan softball team has faced all season.
The Wolverines brought in two star pitchers — 2011 Michigan Miss Softball Sara Driesenga and a top-40 lefty in Haylie Wagner. Right off the bat, Driesenga made an impact, garnering Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors in the first week of the season. Driesenga made her case to be the replacement for Taylor — Michigan wouldn’t have to go through a transition year.
That changed quickly, as her fellow freshman stepped into the spotlight. Wagner earned Big Ten Pitcher of the Week honors for two straight weeks, putting up absurdly good numbers for a freshman — she went 4-0 with a .36 ERA in her first four starts and tallied a season-best 11 strikeouts against Penn State on Feb. 12.
Wagner also proved she was more than just a pitcher. The El Modena, Calif. native hit her first home run against then-No. 22 LSU the first tournament of the season.
Both pitchers showed promise to step up. But once the season progressed, the freshman duo faced tougher competition. Each tournament featured at least one ranked opponent, and when Driesenga struggled to control her release, Wagner had to come in relief.
Wagner continued to pile on wins — she currently sits at 12-4 on the season — while Driesenga faltered, and it became clear who was number one.
But one dominant pitcher isn’t enough for the Wolverines to have the kind of success they want. And that dominant pitcher being a freshman is less than ideal.
Don’t get me wrong — the softball team will continue its success in the Big Ten and the postseason. But if the Wolverines want to avoid an early exit in June, it won’t be the hitting or the defense that will falter at the end.
The difference between a good Michigan team and a great one will be its freshman pitching.
Wagner and Driesenga have shown that they can perform at an exceptionally high level. But they both have exposed their vulnerabilities.
Driesenga hasn’t been able to follow through in her release for most of the season, and Wagner shows frustration when she’s behind in the count — signs that both of them still have room to develop into confident, dominant pitchers.
That confidence won’t develop immediately. But if the Wolverines want to win the conference title and earn a spot in the Women’s College World Series, the freshmen duo will have to learn to gain that confidence soon and eliminate those freshman mistakes.
The rest of the team trusts Wagner and Driesenga in the circle, and Michigan coach Carol Hutchins believes the pitchers are on the right track to develop their skills.
But it’s not about what the rest of the team thinks or how much faith the coach has. It’s all about how Driesenga and Wagner perform — and that’s how the Wolverines’ softball season will turn out.
It may sound like a lot riding on the shoulders of an eighteen- and nineteen-year-old, but if Michigan wants to play ball into June, the freshmen duo will be the key.