When the No. 3 Michigan softball team is mentioned, there are typically two seniors who come to mind: shutout pitcher Jordan Taylor and slugger Dorian Shaw. The two captains have led the Wolverines over their past four years, both at the plate and on the dirt.

But these two seniors are not alone in leading this year’s squad. There are several unsung heroes who have stepped up in 2011. They range in position, age and responsibility, but these players all have one thing in common — they have saved the day more than once this season.

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In May last season, the Wolverines were matched up against Tennessee for the NCAA Super Regional game. Shaw was up to bat and hit a wicked line drive foul, right into the Michigan dugout, making contact with then-sophomore center fielder Bree Evans’s right arm.

Evans should be called the “comeback kid.”

The junior centerfielder has had her fair share of obstacles during her tenure at Michigan. After being sidelined for the winter by a collision at home plate during an exhibition game in Oct. 2009 against Michigan State, Evans shocked everyone by not only getting back to the field by spring, but also by earning All-Big Ten Conference first team honors.

She missed only one game her entire sophomore stint — the Tennessee game.

This season, which has been injury free so far, Evans has traded in her bad luck for big plays, as she holds a .398 batting average and 17 RBI.

“You need that person at the top of the lineup to get on base, get the inning going and give everybody in the lineup confidence,” Shaw said. “Bree does that.”

Evans showed her defensive skills last weekend against Northwestern, snatching away a sure extra-base hit with an over-the-shoulder grab in the fifth to keep the game deadlocked before the eventual Wolverine win.

It’s obvious that nothing can stop Evans from playing her game or making big plays when it counts. There have been multiple times this season in which she has thrown runners out at home, launching the ball from center field into the glove of an unlikely starter.

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Freshman Caitlin Blanchard was not supposed to be a starter. She wasn’t supposed to be vying for the same position as veteran junior Amanda Chidester and she wasn’t supposed to earn the starting position behind the plate for every game this season.

But she did.

“Caitlin Blanchard has been the most pleasant surprise,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “She has really come in and been consistent and solid and played like an upperclassmen. She’s cool, confident and gets better every week.”

The Petersburg, Mich. native has played catcher her entire life — and it shows. The rookie has made just three errors in the first 33 games of her collegiate career, and has successfully adjusted to the pitching by Taylor and Stephanie Speierman, whose pitches have a lot of movement around the plate.

With an inexperienced infield in front of her — Shaw and Taylor are the only returning infielders — Blanchard has had to stand up, physically and vocally, to an advanced level.

“She’s a freshman and she’s young and she’s got a lot of things to learn, but she’s definitely come a long way,” Shaw said. “She’s going to be really, really good at the end of this year for us. The pitchers work with her, the coaches work with her, so she’s learning and getting experience from all angles.”

Blanchard is not the only one new to the high stress level of the collegiate softball game. Taylor can’t pitch every game, so sophomore Stephanie Speierman has had to step up to create a spark on the hill.

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Speierman has become a constant success on the mound. It may seem like the sophomore lives in the shadow of her recognized pitching counterpart, but despite Taylor’s big presence on the mound, Speierman is currently 14-0, battling against every batter she has faced this season.

She made just 12 appearances as a freshman, as All-Americans Taylor and Nikki Nemitz secured the mound for most of the 2010 season. But Speierman has captained the mound for almost half this season’s games, tossing 75 strikeouts in 82 innings. She also tossed two nine-strikeout performances against North Florida and Valparaiso during Michigan’s spring-break trip at the beginning of March.

“I think she’s exceeding our expectations, extremely,” Taylor said. “It’s a huge transition from just pitching one or two games to splitting time. I think she’s been doing really well.”

She still has a lot to learn, but for a team that lost one of its all-time greatest pitchers in Nemitz, Speierman is definitely not a disappointing replacement.

“She has got tremendous velocity and tremendous movement and the key is being able to throw pitch to pitch,” Hutchins said after practice on Tuesday. “Her last game out was against Notre Dame and she was great.”

With consistency, Speierman is no longer standing in the shadow of Taylor and Nemitz, but is building her own legacy in the Michigan softball program.

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With Shaw and Taylor leading the way, these three unsung heroes have stepped up immensely so far this season. Whether it’s behind the plate, on the mound or in the outfield grass, Shaw and Taylor don’t have to worry about having an off day — these unsung heroes can help lead this Wolverine team to what could be its most successful season in years.

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