EAST LANSING – As Seniors Teddi Ewing and Megan Gregory stood by home plate of Alumni Field for their final regular season game Friday, they were handed a new addition to the Michigan softball family.
A Big Ten title — its 13th in program history.
As they lifted the trophy to a huddle of teammates, the 1,832 fans at Alumni Field erupted into rousing applause. The Wolverines had given coach Carol Hutchins her first title since their National Championship run in the 2005 season.
After Friday’s 8-2 victory, their final regular season game ended in a 2-1 loss to Michigan State, but the game meant little for the overall standings. The eighth-ranked Wolverines had already won the conference title.
“It goes to show you how hard we’ve worked,” junior Angela Findlay said. “We made a commitment as a team to focus on playing one-pitch softball.”
After sharing the regular season title with Northwestern last year, this was Michigan’s first outright Big Ten title since 2005.
“It is a big difference (to win outright),” Findlay said. “Last year we didn’t really get to celebrate or anything. … We got our stuff a couple weeks later — it definitely wasn’t as exciting.”
Despite the score, clinching the championship wasn’t easy. Findlay gave the Wolverines an early 2-0 lead after the first inning, but Michigan was shut out through the middle innings, and Michigan State tied the game on a two-run home run.
After Spartan head coach Jacquie Joseph switched pitchers in the fifth, sophomore Dorian Shaw’s single scored two runs and the rout was on. Michigan (17-3 Big Ten, 41-10 overall) scored three runs in both the fifth and the sixth innings.
The near-perfect nature of Michigan’s Big Ten run made the feat all the more impressive. After losing their opening Big Ten series to Northwestern, Michigan rattled off 21 straight wins before Saturday’s loss.
“I thought that was the best thing that happened to us,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “It really forced us back into our moment, because they didn’t get caught up in the race for a while. Then we really started gelling, and we had some people catch fire.
“I really think we’ve been playing in our moment so well because we were in that hole.”
Michigan’s pitching has been its strength all year, and, despite the streak-ending loss, it was strong this weekend as well. Junior Nikki Nemitz and sophomore Jordan Taylor had just one problem — the home run.
Both gave up two-run home runs early in their starts last weekend while racking up 11 strikeouts.
Michigan has been battling back from early deficits all season. After giving up early runs, both pitchers came back to throw well all season, giving their hitters a chance to win. Seven of their 17 Big Ten wins were in come-from-behind fashion.
“I was concerned that this weekend would be a little anti-climatic in some regards,” Hutchins said. “But I thought our kids just gutted through it. It wasn’t one of our best games, yet we’re the champions.”
The conference championship also guarantees that Michigan is in the field for its 15th straight season. Their quest for a second NCAA Championship in five years will start at Alumni Field May 15 against Miami(Ohio) in the NCAA Regionals.