The parallels between the 2005 and 2015 Michigan softball teams couldn't be ignored.
In 2005, the Wolverines were a juggernaut. They began the season ranked No. 8 in the polls, and, despite an early hiccup against a MAC team in the spring, they reeled together 32 straight wins before capturing both the Big Ten regular-season championship and the Big Ten Tournament title. This momentum carried into the NCAA Tournament, during which Michigan maneuvered its way to the Women's College World Series and then the Championship Series, where the Wolverines faced the defending national champions (UCLA). With their backs against the wall after dropping Game 1 in the best-of-three series and tallying just their seventh loss of the season, the Wolverines clawed back to win Games 2 and 3 to secure their first-ever softball national championship.
In the decade since, no Michigan team had won both the Big Ten regular-season and Big Ten Tournament titles, nor had one advanced to the WCWS Championship Series.
In 2015, the Wolverines were a juggernaut. They began the season ranked No. 8 in the polls, and, despite an early hiccup against a MAC team in the spring, they reeled together 28 straight wins while capturing both the Big Ten regular-season championship and the Big Ten Tournament title. This momentum carried into the NCAA Tournament, during which Michigan mowed over the competition en route to the WCWS and then the Championship Series, where the Wolverines faced the defending national champions (Florida). With their backs against the wall after dropping Game 1 in the best-of-three series and tallying just their seventh loss of the season, the Wolverines clawed back to win Game 2 behind Haylie Wagner's masterful performance and force a Game 3.
Sound familiar? It was déjà blue.
And history did repeat itself tonight. But it wasn't the right kind of history.
The Wolverines fell one win short of their second-ever national championship as Florida won Game 3 of the WCWS Championship Series, 4-1, to repeat as national champions.
2015 USA Softball Player of the Year Lauren Haeger was the star, putting in her third straight tremendous performance in this WCWS. Two nights after driving in all three of Florida's runs in Game 1 and one night after surrendering just one run and four hits in a Game 2 loss, Haeger went back in the circle tonight and allowed only one run and five hits in a complete game to earn the title-clinching win. Plus, she even gave herself run support as she recorded the Gators' first RBI in the first frame with a single before reaching base on each of her next three at-bats due to a hit-by-pitch and two intentional walks. Simply, Haeger was the best player in this series and proved it once again tonight.
The other "star" of Game 3 was Florida's unique batting stances. There was no secret heading into this series that the Gators love to crowd the plate and lean into pitches. Florida batters had been hit by pitches 122 times this season prior to tonight. And, after being shut out for the first time in 2015 in Game 2, the Gators made sure that wouldn't happen again in Game 3. They were struck by six Michigan pitches, most of which were just off the plate, and, to put that into context, that was one more than the number of hits they registered (5). Though utilizing such a strategy isn't illegal, the umpires could have stepped in to prevent the Gators from leaning over the plate, but the umps acquiesced.
And it took its effect as soon as Florida's lead-off batter went to the plate.
Haylie Wagner had been near-perfect in the Women's College World Series, allowing no earned runs in 20 innings pitched, but Florida pounced on her in the first two innings. After the Gators put their first two batters on base in the first inning, the first of which thanks to a hit-by-pitch where it appeared that Kelsey Stewart was hit on the knee while her leg was outside the batter's box and right next to the plate, Haeger dropped a bloop single just beyond the infield to drive in Stewart and put Florida on top, 1-0. Three batters later with runners on second and third base, Taylor Schwarz struck a two-out single into left field to add two more runs to the lead. Then, in the second inning, Stewart pushed a 3-2 fastball into left-center field for a double to score in a run from third base.
Just like that, the Gators had a 4-0 advantage with only one out in the second inning, so Carol Hutchins pulled Wagner and inserted Megan Betsa. Though Betsa loaded the bases by hitting back-to-back Gators because their hands were right on top of the plate, she settled in and got both Taylore Fuller and Kirsti Merritt to strike out to end the second.
But the hole had been dug, and, with how Haeger was dealing, a comeback looked bleak.
In unorthodox fashion, Michigan loaded the bases in the third after Wagner and Tera Blanco were plunked back-to-back and Sierra Romero drew a 10-pitch walk. With two outs, Kelly Christner had a chance to put a big dent into Florida's lead, but Haeger induced Christner to whiff on a 1-2 pitch to escape the jam and preserve her no-hit bid.
Neither side threatened to score as both Haeger and Betsa overpowered hitters until Michigan finally proved that Haeger was mortal in the top of the fifth. Blanco registered the Wolverines' first hit of the game with one out when she ripped a single through the left side, and Abby Ramirez followed Blanco's lead by dribbling an infield single to the shortstop. Two batters later, Romero put Michigan on the board when she sat on a change-up and drilled it into left field for a single that drove in Blanco from second base. This provided Christner with another chance to come up big and and cut into Florida's 4-1 lead, but her towering fly ball was hauled in by Merritt in center field to end the rally.
After Florida stranded runners on second and third base when Betsa notched her seventh strikeout by causing Aubree Munro to swing and miss, the Wolverines ignited a potential two-out surge in the sixth when pinch-hitter Amanda Vargas floated a soft single just over an outreached Kathlyn Medina at shortstop and Wagner took a pitch off her elbow guard. However, Blanco couldn't convert with two runners on, grounding out.
Michigan had one last chance to stage a comeback in the seventh, but Haeger and the Gators ensured that there'd be no late-game drama. Though Ramirez opened with an infield single, the top of Michigan's lineup -- Sierra Lawrence, Romero, and Christner -- couldn't generate anything as Christner's roller to Schwarz at first sealed Michigan's fate.
For the Wolverines, it's a disappointing end for what was a marvelous season. Michigan finished with a 60-8 record and still took home the Big Ten regular-season championship and Big Ten Tournament title. They were one of the best teams in the nation and, on the final night of the season, had a shot to join the 2005 Michigan team as national champs.
No, it didn't happen. But these Wolverines still are champions in my book.