If Michigan makes a deep postseason run, there will be a lot more games like this one on the docket. Notre Dame played a great game of fundamental, sound softball, led by a gutty performance from starting pitcher Rachel Nasland that fell apart, eventually, in the fifth. Through four, Nasland had held Michigan to a 2-1 lead thanks to a steady approach and well-placed strikes. Notre Dame's hitters, meanwhile, put together plenty of good swings against Megan Betsa. It was like looking across the way at a stranger and seeing a likeness.
But the fifth inning shattered that notion as the flood gates opened and the Wolverines turned a close affair into a blowout. Once again, Michigan found a way to get to a starting pitcher and drive her to the bench - but not before turning a potentially good stat line into an ugly one. Michigan scored four runs in the inning, turning Nasland's stat line into a valiant massacre: 4.1 innings, 6 runs allowed, 5 earned.
Today proved to be exactly the kind of challenge Michigan needed to get mentally ready for the weeks ahead. Michigan lost just four games in the regular season, and 24 of their 44 regular-season victories came via the mercy rule. Before the last couple weeks, marathons have not been needed. But today, the message was crystal clear: get the details right. Do the little things. Get used to close games, get dialed in on talented opponents, and find a way to close out the win. Michigan did just that.
And, as is so often the case, at the center of it all was Sierra Romero and Megan Betsa. Notre Dame's hitters put some good swings together on Betsa, but the junior kept the Irish at bay despite a season-high eight hits. And with Michigan nursing a 2-1 lead in the top of the fifth inning, Sierra Romero led off and did her best Steph Curry: after an error allowed her to reach base, she used some great base running and all-around intensity to incite a four-run rally that kept momentum in Michigan's corner. Notre Dame went into the bottom of the fifth wondering what just happened, and how they could be down by five runs despite playing well.
But it wasn't just Romero and Betsa. Catcher Aidan Falk got two outs on the base paths and added 2 RBI; Kelly Christner came alive with two hits and a stolen base. Lindsay Montemarano was rewarded for her great swings and consistent defense at third base with a 2 RBI hit to cap the fifth. It was a team effort for Michigan today, and not only that, a patient and serious one. This group, Team 39, came together and fought at a high level when they needed to.
And they are Regional champions because of it. Since a first-round exit in the Regional in 2000, Michigan has won the Regionals every year except 2003 and 2011. It's almost an expectation; it is not, however, a legacy. Michigan earned every one of those Regional titles, and now they have much bigger goals to pursue. The Super Regional is next.