While snow blanketed Ann Arbor this weekend, the Michigan softball team was throwing its first pitches and taking its first swings of the season in sunny Boca Raton, Fla.
The 12th-ranked Wolverines didn’t allow an earned run and went 4-1 on the weekend, beating Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina and host Florida Atlantic at the Kick-Off Classic.
With two one-run victories and two extra-inning games, Michigan had its hands full all weekend. But thanks to the relentless pitching duo of sophomore Nikki Nemitz and freshman Jordan Taylor, the Wolverines stayed close in every game.
Nemitz, Michigan’s only returning pitcher, assumed the leadership role as the team’s ace.
“Pitching is key for keeping the score low, so our batters have a chance to win the game,” Nemitz said. “It keeps the other team off the bases as much as possible.”
Nemitz set the tone for the weekend, tallying 10 strikeouts in a dominating 1-0 win over Massachusetts. She picked up seven more strikeouts in a 3-2 complete-game win over South Carolina.
Nemitz’s control during the tight games demonstrated her growth since last season. After earning first-team All-Big Ten honors last year and posting a 22-4 record in her freshman campaign, expectations have risen as she takes over the veteran role on the young pitching staff, which includes two freshmen.
Nemitz split the pitching duties this weekend with Taylor, who made her collegiate debut Friday against Maryland.
The Valencia, Calif., native showed maturity beyond her 19 years, pitching calmly through two extra-inning showdowns. After an error-filled 2-0 nine-inning loss to Maryland Friday, she bounced back, holding Florida Atlantic scoreless and limiting damage in extra innings to give the Wolverines an opportunity for a dramatic come-from-behind victory Sunday morning.
In the bottom of the ninth, with the Wolverines down 2-1, freshman Dorian Shaw hit a three-run walk-off home run to give Michigan its biggest offensive explosion of the weekend. Before the clutch blast, Shaw had struck out seven times over the first three games of the tournament.
Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said the offense started to come alive in the sixth inning of the Florida Atlantic game, when the players started making more contact. They maintained the offensive energy throughout the end of the tournament.
“We got our sticks going,” Nemitz said. “Our offense started producing, and we started seeing the ball.”
In Sunday’s rematch with Maryland, Nemitz gave the Wolverines a solid six innings and left the game with a 5-2 lead. Taylor stepped in with two base runners on, struck out two batters and forced a fielder’s choice to pick up the save.
With the promising pitching performance and an offense that combined for a season-high 12 hits against the Terrapins, Michigan has plenty to build on heading into the 2008 season.
With five consecutive weekend tournaments ahead, the Wolverines need to defrost their bats from the Michigan winter a little more to take some pressure off the pitchers.
“We need to play the game the way we play in practice,” Hutchins said. “But I do think as we went on, we got better. We were a better team when we left.”