Every playoff run needs a hero.
And the Michigan softball team’s journey through the NCAA regionals was no exception. Luckily for them, they had an plenty of heroes as they beat Notre Dame 4-0 to win the regional final Sunday for the sixth consecutive year.
The magic started the previous day when the Wolverines were down 1-0 with only their last two outs to play with. Junior Maggie Viefhaus stepped to the plate, and four pitches later the ball landed in the grass behind the grandstand in right field for a solo home run. Four batters later, it was an 0-for-3 freshman who had the chance to be the unlikely hero.
With runners on first and second, Bree Evans’ bloop single sent the crowd at Alumni Field home for the day and put Michigan in position to move on to the Super Regionals.
Evans has a knack for the pressure situations. In the regional final the next day, she scored the first and eventual game-winning run in the sixth inning, and then followed it up with a clinching double an inning later that plated the third run.
“Today I was able to read (Notre Dame pitcher Brittney Barger’s) pitches better than yesterday,” Evans said. “I knew coming into today I really wanted to hit her because of how I did yesterday, I didn’t have my best outing.”
In addition to the newfound hero, a long-standing one emerged yet again in sophomore pitcher Jordan Taylor.
After throwing a seven-inning complete game and allowing only one run against Notre Dame on Saturday, Taylor was called by Michigan coach Carol Hutchins to come in in relief of junior pitcher Nikki Nemitz after Nemitz gave up a walk in the sixth inning.
“It was a one-run game, and a runner on base, we’ve got Jordan, who they haven’t seen all game, who throws totally different than Nikki,” Hutchins said. “It was a momentum shift and in a tight game I didn’t want any momentum going their way.
“I have two great pitchers and I’m going to use them both every game if that is what it is going to take to win.”
Taylor allowed only two hits in 1.2 innings and struck out four of the last five batters.
Taylor struck out Notre Dame’s Erin Marrone but a dropped third strike allowed Marrone to get on base. After a single put two runners on Michigan fans were holding their breath. But when Taylor got two consecutive outs, the Michigan fans exhaled with a roar of approval.
“It makes it a little different just because the batter has seen the pitch,” Taylor said. “They did a good job yesterday of starting to lay off some of my pitches towards the end of the game. I think that carried on into today and they weren’t chasing as much.”
Nemitz’s performance wasn’t far behind Taylor’s heroism on the mound.
Nemitz went 5.1 innings, allowing only three hits, but was pulled in favor of Taylor. Not content with only pitching a shutout, Nemitz found another way to make her presence felt after leaving the circle.
In her next at-bat, Nemitz took a 1-0 pitch and sent it to right field where it clanged off of the foul pole.
“I was just going up there to hit the ball hard, we weren’t hitting her all day,” Nemitz said. “It was the seventh inning and the last chance to score and really get the momentum going our way.”
Michigan’s quest continues in the Super Regionals as the fifth-seeded Wolverines take on Baylor next weekend at home at Alumni Field. Hutchins and her team know that new heroes will emerge, one way or another.
“We’ve been in the World Series eight times and it’s never been easy to get there, but it’s getting harder and harder,” Hutchins said. “To get through regionals, I don’t take anything for granted, any championship.”