Thirty-one years. You can take on some big projects with that kind of time. In Carol Hutchins' case, she built a legacy as one of the greatest softball coaches of all time, and turned Michigan's softball program into a powerhouse along the way. When Hutchins started here in 1985, the salary and recognition weren't what they are today. The budget was minuscule, and Hutchins had to take care of the field herself, "throwing down lime and riding the lawn tractor." But she immediately turned Michigan into a winner, and around 1995, something clicked. All the hard work fell into place, and Michigan softball turned from a winning varsity sport into a growing cornerstone of Ann Arbor.
Since that '95 season: a 1,108-262-4 record, nineteen regional championships, thirteen WCWS appearances, one title and almost another title in 2015. Now, given the fact that the Regional and Super Regional games have all sold out within minutes of tickets being available, Carol Hutchins is pushing for more seating at Alumni Field. Sooner or later, she'll probably get it.
The memories, the stories, the experiences have been countless. The sheer number of women who have passed through this softball program under Hutchins is similarly amazing. But for now, we're only focused on this one group. The next ones in line, who contribute a little more to the legacy while testing the limits of their abilities. The Women's College World Series is the ultimate test for a young softball player. And Michigan is headed there.
Hats off to MGoBlog for a lot of great photos.
But to get there, Michigan had to take out Missouri, and that task was a lot more challenging than the series sweep might suggest. On Sunday, Michigan and Missouri went back to trading blows, and in a game dominated by offense (eighteen hits, 23 base-runners), there were some noticeable missed opportunities on both sides.
For Michigan, two fly ball outs were caught at the warning track - one by Kelsey Susalla in the first with a runner on and another by Aidan Falk in the sixth. A fly ball by Sierra Romero in the seventh was almost her twelfth career grand slam, but that was caught right before the warning track.
And missed opportunities were the story of the game for Missouri, who couldn't seem to find enough good luck to go along with their good swings. This was exemplified by a Regan Nash single in the fifth; a throw that got past first baseman Tera Blanco made Nash make a move for second base, but Michigan quickly got the ball back to Blanco to pick off Nash instead. Nash would have scored in that inning; instead, the game ended as a one-run win for the Wolverines.
Then, of course, there was the seventh, when Michigan came back from a three-run deficit to clinch the game. After a three-run homer in the sixth put Missouri up, the Wolverines responded with four singles (one of them a brilliant bunt by Abby Ramirez), a double and then took advantage of a wild pitch to get the go-ahead run with two outs. Alumni Field was rocking at this point; the crowd was roaring "Let's Go Blue!" It took until the seventh inning of a second game, but Michigan's offense was able to wear out an opposing pitcher once again.
I wanted to include a poll for Super Regionals MVP, but there really isn't a challenger to third baseman Lindsay Montemarano, who put up the following stat line over two games: 3-4, .833 OBP, 2.75 SLG%, 3.583 OPS, 4 RBI. After being hit by a pitch in Sunday's game, she turned and screamed toward her own dugout for the team to keep fighting, digging in and competing. The defense at third was great, and Lindsay has been something of a clean-up hitter for the lower part of the order. Hats off to her.
So, the WCWS begins this Thursday. The eight teams are broken into two brackets; on Michigan's side is Oklahoma, Alabama, and LSU. On the other side, Auburn, FSU, Georgia and either UCLA or Oregon* await. We'll have a preview up for Michigan's bracket opponents some time this week.
* Oregon leads UCLA 1-0 in the series, and Game 2 has gone to extra innings after UCLA tied it late.