The Michigan softball team fooled me.
I had expectations of how the postseason would go, and I would be remiss if I didn’t say a trip to the Women’s College World Series was the ending in mind.
I’m not beating myself up, though, for buying into the Wolverines’ chances. Michigan fooled the experts, too.
They fooled ESPN analysts, die-hard college softball fans and even the ushers at Alumni Field — all of whom surely must have thought this team was bound for Oklahoma City. At least, people thought, they would advance from their regional — something the Wolverines have done each of the past seven years.
So what happened? Why did Michigan coach Carol Hutchins’ team end its season when the calendar still reads May, while playing in front of a home crowd that was treated to a miraculous Michigan comeback over Notre Dame before Sunday’s elimination?
When the regional pairings were revealed on May 15, panic should have set in since an SEC team (Kentucky) was sent to Ann Arbor. While the SEC is no comparison to the PAC-10 — college softball’s toughest conference — there is something about the southeast that baffles the Wolverines.
In fact, in each of the past three seasons now, the Wolverines have been eliminated by an SEC program. Last year, Tennessee proved to be too much in the NCAA Super Regionals. In 2009, Michigan’s two losses at the World Series came against Florida and Georgia.
In a season in which the Wolverines compiled their best record the program has seen since the 2005 National Championship run, the schedule proved to be simply too soft.
The regular-season slate included games against just two currently ranked teams. And at tournament time, Michigan was exposed, for what it was — a very good team. But not a great team. And certainly not a championship team like many dreamed it was.
But there’s an underlying problem here that creates an advantage for schools not named Michigan. What do the PAC-10, SEC and Big 12 have in common besides being generally regarded as the three toughest conferences in softball?
All of their member institutions enjoy all the benefits of a climate where the temperature rises far earlier in the year than programs located further north. While Michigan and its Big Ten counterparts are still taking grounders in the Oosterbaan Field House or similar indoor complexes across the Midwest, teams in Florida, Arizona and California are out in the sunshine, gaining experience on game-ready fields and in the conditions that they will be experiencing for the long haul of the season.
The competitive disadvantage of an extended “spring training” for warm-weather teams, combined with a weak strength of schedule, didn’t bode well for the Wolverines as they weren’t ready for the rigors of tournament play with four games against high-caliber teams in three days.
The first factor is one that, unfortunately for the Wolverines, is unchangeable. Michigan winters will extend into February, which will turn into March and drag deep into April. I’m confident that if 30 years from now I glance at the national softball rankings, the teams at the top will hail from the states where vacationers may go to escape those very same cruel winters.
Those teams will be ready for the grind earlier, battle-tested by the start of conference play and peaking in May when the NCAAs roll around.
Programs like Michigan will compensate for this disadvantage in other ways — by bringing in blue-chip recruits, providing top-notch facilities and keeping Hutchins in that third-base coach’s box as long as she will stay there.
But its the scheduling factor that the Wolverines can overcome.
The Big Ten will never give Michigan a battleground of competition that will suitably prepare it for those fierce tournament match-ups against the best programs in the nation. Indiana — this year’s toughest foe in the conference race — is no powerhouse and can’t imitate the tests that await at season’s end.
But by building a non-conference schedule that would make the coach of an average team shudder, the Wolverines can prevent anymore nasty surprises like this year when they found that a team that is middle-of-the-road in the SEC could outplay the cream of the crop in the Big Ten. And let’s face it — the Michigan softball program is far from that average benchmark and doesn’t appear it will stoop down to it.
But until more than a few teams that might be playing into June start popping up on the Wolverines’ schedules, it is hard to expect another championship season. Racking up the wins over mediocre teams in non-conference play does little more than build confidence and trick pollsters who at one point voted Michigan the No. 1 team in the country.
This weekend in Ann Arbor, we learned that was far from the truth.
We won’t get fooled again.