The Michigan softball team looked like it wanted to force a rubber game.
After just two innings, the 21st-ranked Wolverines jumped out to a 3-1 lead on Alabama, but the 2nd-ranked Crimson Tide rallied late, earning a berth to the Women’s College World Series and eliminating Michigan from the NCAA Tournament in a 4-3 final.
Michigan got an early boost in the first inning from senior first baseman Amanda Chidester when she knocked a pitch from Alabama hurler Jackie Traina over the left field fence. That RBI made her just the second Michigan softball player to reach the 200 RBI mark in a career.
The Wolverines tacked on two more in the bottom of the second frame on RBIs from senior third baseman Stephanie Kirkpatrick and senior center-fielder Bree Evans — whose 15-game hitting streak was the longest by a player all season.
But Michigan’s early lead wasn’t enough. Alabama’s powerful hitting was too much for Michigan’s pitching staff.
The Crimson Tide worked the pitch count to their advantage, forcing Wolverine lefty Haylie Wagner to throw 128 pitches in Friday’s matchup.
With the score at 3-1, Alabama’s offense got rolling in the top of the fifth inning on a two-run home run by shortstop Kaila Hunt, which tied the game. Though Wagner was having success against the Crimson Tide batters early in the game by pitching to the corners, she wasn’t able to hold off one of the best offenses in the nation.
“Earlier in my at-bats, (Wagner) hadn’t been throwing to me, and earlier in the game, I know that I made mistakes, so I needed to step up for my team,” Hunt said of her home run. “She gave me the pitch, and I just took advantage of it.”
But that wasn’t the end of the scoring. Alabama knocked in another run on an RBI triple in the top of the sixth.
Seven Michigan batters later, the Crimson Tide punched their ticket to Oklahoma City.
“Hats off to Alabama,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “(Jackie) Traina notched it up there late in the game. She wasn’t on her A-game, but boy she got on it. It’s been fun to be here; it’s been a fantastic tournament. I’m so proud because we came to play. We came to win, and we didn’t get it done, but that’s all that you can ask of your kids is to play to win.”
But the Wolverines might not even come this far if it weren’t for its star duo of freshman pitchers. Right-hander Sara Driesenga didn’t make a single post-season appearance, but her role as the designated player in the clean-up spot was a boost to the Wolverine offense.
Wagner, however, finished the season with the record for freshman wins — 32 — and the most appearances in the circle with 50. Her performance racked in conference accolades, as she was named both the Big Ten Freshman and Pitcher of the Year this season.
But it wasn’t the rookie duo who led the team this season.
“We had a senior class who had been to the World Series convincing kids how difficult it is because their freshman year they just thought it was easy,” Hutchins said. “We push them hard every day and try to get the message through that you’ve got to be at your best when it’s difficult. I thought the seniors needed to take it upon their shoulders that no matter what we needed them to not only perform, but they had to be the heart and soul of the team.”
A few weeks ago, a trip to the Super Regional looked unlikely for a faltering Michigan squad, but Hutchins said this team pulled together in the end.
“I thought the last three or four weeks of our season, they really did that, and they started playing well,” she said. “They started being selfless. This team was one of my favorite groups.”