Maybe it was the 80-degree heat. Maybe it was the home crowd dressed in maize and blue. Maybe it was because it was the first home game. For whatever reason, the Michigan softball team looked comfortable as it wrapped up nonconference play with a 10-2 win over Eastern Michigan on Wednesday night.
In a tumultuous first half of the season, the 20th-ranked Wolverines (18-9) had games where their strengths were highlighted and other days where their weaknesses were exposed.
Early wins in February against then-No. 22 LSU at the Tiger Classic in Baton Rouge, La. and then-No. 22 Kentucky at the FAU Kickoff Classic in Boca Raton, Fla., exemplified the great play and confidence that Michigan coach Carol Hutchins has brought to the program throughout her tenure.
The Wolverines continued their hot streak at the Citrus Classic in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. with wins against No. 14 UCLA and No. 19 Auburn. Soon after, the team hit an offensive slump, losing four of six games and scoring just six runs during that stretch — including a 5-1 loss to Illinois State, a team they beat earlier in the season.
“Our offense has been inconsistent and hasn’t done its part,” Hutchins said. “We had a nice night tonight offensively, but some nights are going to be tougher. But the key is to stay within ourselves as a team.”
Wednesday night’s victory against the Eagles brought back the confidence Michigan had at the beginning of the season, and the team is looking to work off this momentum as they enter into Big Ten play this weekend.
“We play a really touch schedule in the preseason and we can’t just come in there thinking, ‘Oh, just because we play Big Ten and always do well at that, that we’re going to do well this year,’ ” said senior first baseman Amanda Chidester. “We have to come in and keep competing and keep playing to our best ability in each game. It doesn’t matter if it’s Penn State (or) Louisiana-Lafayette, we have to play our game.”
As they transition into the second half of the season, the Wolverines will first look to Chidester, senior center fielder Bree Evans and junior second baseman Ashley Lane to lead the team offensively.
It is no coincidence that all three were named to the Watch List for the 2012 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year award.
Chidester leads the team with 23 RBIs and 24 hits and is second on the team with a .289 batting average. Evans is tied with Chidester with 24 hits and leads the team with 15 runs, with a .273 batting average. Lane leads the team with seven home runs has 13 RBIs.
The Michigan offense doesn’t end with the upperclassmen trio. Freshman catcher Lauren Sweet leads the team with a .296 batting average and has 21 hits.
“Everyone has their own little thing that they need to focus on, and if we all focus on those things then we are going to be successful,” Chidester said.
With all of their offensive potential, the Wolverines’ slow start was disappointing
“We were just trying to get the (them) to understand that they are trying too hard,” Hutchins said. “They are trying to be heroes, and they need to instead pick a pitch and get it. That’s what the team needs.”
The biggest surprise of the first half of the season has been the pitching of freshman left-hander Haylie Wagner, who has already won two Big Ten Pitcher of the Week awards and one Big Ten Freshman of the Week award while earning a 12-4 record on the mound and pitching a 1.26 ERA.
“Interestingly enough, our pitching has been pretty darn good, and our freshman have done their part,” Hutchins said. “Coming into the season, that’s not something everybody expected.”
Freshman right-hander Sara Driesenga joins Wagner as the other starting pitcher for Michigan.
“I think the pitching staff has done a great job as a whole,” Wagner said. “Whenever we get an opportunity to come in and do our part, we step up, and so far it is working and it is going to continue to work.”
With the pitching success ahead of schedule and the offense slowly getting back into a rhythm, the defense is the last component missing.
“Our defense over the first part of the season has not done its part, but I think the defense is settling in,” Hutchins said. “It’s close. If we want the chance to be a Big Ten Champion we have to compete in battle.”
As everything comes together for the second half of the season, the Wolverines have picked the right time to heat up.
“We have a group of seniors that only know winning it, but you don’t get to win it because you won it for three years. You don’t get anything,” Hutchins said. “We have to come out and play softball. We have to play team softball, because as a team, we’re pretty good.”