They did it. Again. And again.
Despite winning the Big Ten title after their second game against Purdue, the celebration didn’t begin until junior second baseman Ashley Lane fielded a ground ball and tossed it to junior shortstop Amy Knapp. They ran to senior pitcher Hilary Payne in the circle — who recorded the final three outs on Senior Day — and Michigan coach Carol Hutchins came out to see her girls, where she was rewarded with a drenching from the Gatorade cooler. The No. 22 Michigan softball team’s fifth straight conference championship was in the bag.
The Wolverines (18-5 Big Ten, 39-15 overall) swept Purdue over the weekend, taking the first game, 2-1, the second, 8-5, and the finale, 8-0, in five innings.
“This year was a little bit of challenge,” said senior first baseman Amanda Chidester. “We needed to start fighting for (the championship) instead of just sitting back and waiting for it to come to us.”
After winning the first game, Michigan came into the second needing a victory to secure first place over Iowa, who trailed by a game-and-a-half.
The Wolverines got on the board in the third inning, scoring seven runs off of Purdue pitcher Katie Hackney. All of the runs were unearned, though, following four errors by the Boilermakers (13-10, 31-22).
The third inning began when sophomore right-fielder Lyndsay Doyle was walked. She advanced to third after consecutive singles by senior center-fielder Bree Evans and sophomore left-fielder Nicole Sappingfield. Chidester hit a sharp ball to the third base side, and the throw to home resulted in an error, so Michigan scored two runs.
Freshman right-hander Sara Driesenga hit a sacrifice fly before Lane hit a single to make the score 5-0. Knapp would finish off the scoring in the inning with an RBI double and later ran home on an error.
But the errors were a constant throughout the game — the teams combined for nine in the Saturday’s first game.
“I told them that no matter what happened in that game or the second game (on Saturday), your parents are still going to love you and believe it or not, I’m still going to love you,” Hutchins said. “Just go out there and play and take the pressure off.”
Michigan won the finale, headlined by a five-run first inning. With the bases loaded, freshman left-hander Haylie Wagner stepped up to the plate and crushed her fourth home run of the season and first-career grand slam. Following Wagner, Knapp got in on the fun with a solo shot to right field, forcing Purdue to change pitchers after two-thirds of an inning.
“When we let go, when we just relax and see the ball, you see what we can do,” Hutchins said. “If we can just play softball and not try to hit, not try to win … we’re a good team.”
Friday’s game was a closer battle, but Michigan used free passes from Purdue pitcher Lexy Moore to score.
In the first inning, Wagner was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded to score the first run of the game, but the Wolverines left the bases loaded.
Purdue would get the run back in the fifth, but Michigan answered in the bottom of the inning when sophomore catcher Caitlin Blanchard hit a sacrifice fly to score Driesenga.
Wagner controlled Purdue throughout the game, striking out five and holding the Boilermakers to six hits to seal the victory.
With Wagner’s two victories in the series, she has pitched a total of 217 innings in 45 appearances this season, but she still has more left in her arm.
“(The arm) feels fine,” Wagner said. “I just keep icing it and working it, and I just trust my arm.”
With the title in hand, the Wolverines travel to Louisville, Kent. in the NCAA Tournament, where they will play away from their fans at home for the first time since 2001. After hosting a Regional last year, Michigan will miss the home-field advantage, where they lost only three games this season.
“Our kids love playing at Alumni Field,” Hutchins said. “I think it can be an intimidating place for opponents.”
The Wolverines will first face Kentucky on Friday, where they will think about redemption after being knocked out by the Wildcats in last year’s Regional.
But the Wolverines will go down with the only goal they’ve had all season. Winning.