The drive from Ann Arbor to Pennsylvania is nothing but six hours of Midwestern Highway. One week after the Women’s College World Series, former Michigan softball player Haylie Wagner set out on that route, ready to begin the third iteration of her softball career.
“I knew that I wasn’t ready to be done playing after (my career at) Michigan,” Wagner said. “Once Michigan closed so suddenly – it was over so quick – I knew I wanted to continue playing.
The Friday after Michigan’s loss to Florida in the WCWS Championship series, team officials from the Pennsylvania Rebellion contacted Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. Wagner went undrafted in the 2015 National Pro Fastpitch college draft, but Pennsylvania was looking to sign her as a free agent.
On June 9, Wagner signed her first NPF contract for the Rebellion and is now available to play in the team’s three-game series against the Dallas Charge this week.
“I’m always going to remember Michigan … and I will always represent the block “M” with great pride,” Wagner said. “But I’m at a new stage in my life, and I will represent the Rebellion just as much as I did Michigan.”
The left-hander leaves Michigan’s program with a 100-18 career record from inside the circle. Her .847 win percentage ranks third all-time amongst Wolverine pitchers. The pitching tandem of Wagner and sophomore right-hander Megan Betsa ranked fifth in the NCAA for cumulative ERA in the 2015 season.
Now Wagner is entering a new role, and she’s still transitioning to life on the professional circuit.
“Going into playing with the Rebellion, I need to remember to still have fun,” Wagner said. “Just because it’s more of a business type now, and it’s a little bit different. I don’t really know any of the girls so I feel like I’m a freshman again, but I just kind of have to go out and play softball.”
Before her contract with the Rebellion officially activated, Wagner was with the team, but unable to pitch in games. The Rebellion play all their games at seven in the evening — which gave Wagner a lot of downtime. She worked out and threw bullpen sessions, but couldn’t help taking some time to reflect on her senior season at Michigan.
In the fall of 2014, the players and coaching staff of the Michigan softball team took a trip to Traverse City, Michigan. Sitting around a campfire one evening, someone asked Wagner to name one goal she had for the future; she gave a short answer.
“I said, ‘I want to pitch in the World Series.’ ”
According to Wagner, it was from those early team meetings last fall that Team 38 began to build the chemistry and team attitude that helped shape their season.
It was easy to see how the Wolverines operated smoothly as a unit on the field. After a few stumbles against Iowa and Minnesota in early Big Ten play, Michigan built a winning streak that began in mid-April and didn’t expire until June. Through all those wins, there was evidence of good coaching, and a talented roster, but Wagner believes her teammates’ relationships with one another played a role that shouldn’t be discounted.
“It was a group of girls coming together and becoming best friends, not just playing softball together,” Wagner said. “Going out on the field we knew how to have fun, but we also knew when to be serious. I think everybody bought into that and they understood what it meant to go out there and play softball when it’s time to play softball. But then there we also knew the times when we could have fun and joke around and everything.”
As Wagner tells it, she spent nearly every moment of her senior year with her teammates that became her best friends right by her side. Softball practice and games were as commonplace as going out to eat together, shopping sprees or movie nights, all with her teammates.
“There was never a moment that I wasn’t with one of the girls on our team,” Wagner Said. “I think that’s what was so special. We never got sick of each other.”
The 2015 Michigan team perfected the recipe for team chemistry. That chemistry contributed to its success as much as any other factor during the season. The Wolverines continued that win streak throughout the entirety of spring, and eventually used it to help Wagner realize her goal of pitching in Oklahoma City.
Hutchins called Wagner’s World Series performance the best she had seen from the left-hander in her entire career. When the series ended with a loss against Florida, Hutchins’ thoughts echoed Wagner’s words about the bond between players.
“This has been a great team, fun to coach,” Hutchins said. “They’ve been very committed to the team, very committed to Michigan and to each other and I’m proud of them.”
“I’m proud of my seniors, really proud of Haylie Wagner,” Hutchins said. “She was outstanding.”
Hutchins’ philosophies still resonate with Wagner as she prepares for the possibility of playing in her first professional softball game this week. As fondly as Wagner will remember the friendships she had on Team 38, or pitching in the World Series, it’s the words of her former coach that will remain as some of her strongest influences.
“Hutch has changed me,” Wagner said. “She’s made me approachable, nice and loving … Without Hutch I don’t know what I’d do these last four years. I wouldn’t be playing for The Rebellion without her. I want to make her proud. I know that she’ll be following me along the way, and I’m just going to do whatever I can. Not just to represent myself and the Rebellion, but also represent Michigan and Hutch.”