With the return of its top two pitchers — senior Nicole Motycka and junior Jennie Ritter — the Michigan softball team looked poised to make another run to the Women’s College World Series at the season’s start.
So far, so good.
The Wolverines (3-1 Big Ten, 35-2 overall) have already established a school-record 32-game winning streak and have taken the No. 1 ranking in both national polls.
But what wasn’t expected has been the emergence of sophomore Laurilyn Wilson as the team’s No. 2 pitcher.
Unexpected because, last year, Wilson was used sparingly, often facing weaker opponents to give Motycka and Ritter some rest.
“In high school, I was the only pitcher on the team,” Wilson said. “No matter how bad I was doing, my coaches couldn’t take me out. Here you have the coaches breathing down your neck, and you know that if you make a mistake, they’re going to pull you. That was an adjustment.”
Unexpected because Wilson has raced out to a 14-1 record against top-notch competition — including two perfect innings of relief in Michigan’s 6-2 victory over then-No. 1 Arizona at the Kia Classic on March 20.
“I have consistency and confidence this year,” Wilson said. “Last year, it was a whole new setting. I didn’t have the confidence that I had in high school. Then, over the summer, I worked a lot on my mechanics in pitching — using my legs more. I’m throwing better all around on a more consistent basis.”
The sophomore hurler’s hard work has resulted in another change — turning in her No. 17 jersey for No. 1. Wilson approached Michigan coach Carol Hutchins about the switch and was told she needed to improve her conditioning before she could wear No. 1.
“She’s improved from last year,” Hutchins said. “She improved in the fall. She’s improved from game one to now, and she continues to get better. She hasn’t let anything snowball. She’s done a tremendous job of taking it one pitch at a time.”
Wilson had another opportunity this past weekend to prove that she’s ready to help carry the load for the Wolverines. After losing the first game of her college career, 5-2, to Iowa on Friday — which also snapped Michigan’s school-record winning streak — Wilson came back and threw a one-hit shutout against Illinois on Sunday.
“(Last year), she wasn’t in a go-to role,” Hutchins said. “She didn’t pitch by need; it was pitching to try to get her better. This year, that role has obviously changed.”
Wilson’s success has also allowed Motycka to move to the designated hitter spot, where she has been a big part of the Wolverines’ record-setting offense. In just 37 games, Motycka has contributed eight of the team’s school-record 55 home runs this season, already passing the former mark of 49.
Motycka continues to work on her pitching, just in case she is needed, which gives Hutchins three premier pitchers she can rely on.
“That’s the luxury that we’ve had, having more than one quality pitcher,” Hutchins said. “It was well noted at the Kia Classic.”
It was at the Kia Classic where Wilson stepped into the national spotlight with a 3-0 record and 19 strikeouts in the tournament.
With Ritter as the clear No. 1 starter — she is 16-0 this season and carried the Wolverines through much of the playoffs last year — Wilson at No. 2 and Motycka in reserve, Michigan is actually stronger than it first appeared and could be back on the road to the World Series.