When the Michigan softball team took the field for the first time on Feb. 11 in Houston to play Southern Illinois, everyone was prepared for a rebuilding year for the Wolverines.
Seven innings later, after a 19-4 blowout, it looked like the doubters might be wrong. Dead wrong.
And now, with just four losses to Michigan’s credit, accompanied by 17 mercy-rule wins and a No. 2 national ranking, it’s been a season of pleasant surprises for the Wolverines.
Senior pitcher Jordan Taylor’s constant success on the mound was not so much a surprise. But the two-time All American’s ability to pitch 31 of this season’s 55 games and lose just three is downright impressive — ridiculous, even.
Michigan coach Carol Hutchins can never say enough about Taylor, highlighting not only her stellar season, but her record-breaking career as well.
“You’ll definitely be seeing a lot of Jordan,” Hutchins said about this weekend’s NCAA Regionals matchup.
After tossing a one-hit, 13-strikeout game last Friday against Michigan State, followed by a no-hitter Saturday, Taylor’s permanent spot on the rubber isn’t surprising.
Taylor earned her third Big Ten Pitcher of the Week award after her weekend against the Spartans — the 14th weekly accolade of her career. She also picked up her first career National Fastpitch Coaches Association’s National Player of the Week honor on Tuesday.
Stepping away from the mound, two infielders surprised the Wolverines this season — one a rookie, one a third-year starter.
Junior third baseman Amanda Chidester came into the season with a new responsibility on her hands: play the same position every week. Chidester was known as Michigan’s main utility player, moving to whatever position she was needed to play. She also ended her sophomore season on quite the tear, but it took her a while to get there.
But this season, Chidester has come through in the clutch, typically at the plate. She is batting a team-leading .433 average with 72 RBI. Chidester also boasts a team-low 12 strikeouts on the entire season.
For a team whose offense was struggling for a brief period in the middle of its regular season, the Wolverines could not have asked for more out of Chidester. And she couldn’t have been more vital to their success.
Every one of Taylor’s 301 strikeouts this season was caught by another important surprise to the Wolverine squad: freshman Caitlin Blanchard. Before the season started, it looked like Chidester would be continuing her utility abilities behind the dish.
But, wearing graduated All-American Nikki Nemitz’s No. 44 jersey, Blanchard earned her spot behind home plate — and hasn’t moved since.
“Caitlin Blanchard has been the most pleasant surprise,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said back in March. “She has really come in and been consistent and solid and played like an upperclassmen.”
And Blanchard’s importance to this season only went up from there.
The final surprise for the Wolverines this season was senior designated hitter, Alycia Ryan. Prior to this season, Ryan had played in just 56 total games — usually the tally for just one season for a starter. In those games, she was typically just a pinch runner.
Ryan had no expectations this season. No pressure or weight on her shoulders. So when she earned an occasional spot in the lineup as the designated hitter, she took her chance — and ran with it.
“The thing I like the most about Alycia is she isn’t fazed by anything we do with her,” Hutchins said after Ryan hit two solo home runs against Ohio State on May 4. “She just wants to do her part, and she’s happier than heck to get the chance to do it.”
In just 73 at bats, Ryan hit 7 home runs (including several game-winners), 20 RBI and an on-base percentage of .346. She helped pull the Wolverines out of their midseason hitting slump and has been a consistent contributor since.
Michigan must use these bolts from out of the blue to push the Wolverines past the NCAA Regionals series this weekend. After a very successful regular season, it’s obvious these key surprises have been influential.