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Big Ten Regular Season Champs ... Now What?

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With the regular season now complete (and 44 wins in the books), the Wolverines stand as the #2 team in the country. What does it mean, and where do they go from here?

MGoBlog

In 2005, the Wolverines were national champions. Down 1-0 in the WCWS final, Michigan stared down two must-win games and got them both, beating UCLA 5-2 and then 4-1 to earn Carol Hutchins her one and only title. Jennie Ritter: 38-4 on the year, 0.92 ERA and 10 cool innings in a championship clincher that went to overtime. Jessica Merchant, Samantha Findlay: 42 combined home runs, 140 RBIs, and a combined season average of .370. All of the ladies on that team will be able to say they brought Michigan softball its first national title.

That feat hasn't been duplicated in the ten years since, but Michigan's program has remained consistently dominant - always a threat, and almost always the Regional champion, at the very least. Behind a program record 118 home runs, last year's team was just one win away from earning Hutchins another championship. Now, it's that time of year once again, where the best young softball players in the country measure themselves against each other. A #2 ranking? Cool. Now it's time to go show it to everyone.

AB HR RBI AVG OBP SLG% OPS Stolen Bases
Sierra Lawrence CF 136 10 40 .441 .568 .721 1.289 18-18
Sierra Romero 2B 132 16 71 .485 .600 .947 1.547 13-14
Kelly Christner LF 141 6 28 .305 .415 .518 .933 6-8
Kelsey Susalla RF 132 10 50 .364 .476 .697 1.173 4-4
Tera Blanco 1B 123 10 57 .415 .534 .772 1.306 0-0
Aidan Falk C 112 5 32 .321 .361 .563 .924 0-1
Faith Canfield DP 79 3 14 .316 .349 .481 .830 1-1
Lindsay Montemarano 3B 94 8 31 .319 .458 .670 1.128 2-2
Abby Ramirez SS 114 0 13 .368 .482 .421 .903 5-7

The home run totals might seem paltry, but adjust the number of at-bats to a normal MLB total, and Blanco, Lawrence, and Susalla would have notched 40 home runs. Sierra Romero would have 66 and almost 300 RBI.

This year's squad isn't on pace to match the home run totals from last year, but they've traded in some of the long balls for more overall power (.608 to .625 SLG%), a better batting average (.338 to .360), more walks, fewer strikeouts, fewer double plays, and a better fielding percentage. This offense is more well-rounded and more dominant than a year ago.

IP GP GS ERA W-L BAA WHIP Strikeouts SO/BB Ratio
Megan Betsa 140.1 32 23 2.05 22-3 .152 1.11 236 2.91
Sara Driesenga 121.0 29 20 2.26 20-0 .229 1.20 92 2.42
Tera Blanco 29.1 9 5 2.39 2-1 .209 1.36 29 1.71
Leah Crockett 1.0 1 0 0.00 0-0 .250 1.00 0 agh! 0 division!

Let this one sink in: Megan Betsa is averaging 1.68 strikeouts an inning. That is a slight improvement from last year, when she finished fourth in the country with 333 strikeouts.

The pitching hasn't been quite as good as last year - a 2.14 ERA instead of 1.66, for example - but the Wolverines are still top-25 nationally and boast a very strong pair of aces in Megan Betsa and Sara Driesenga. In softball, even more than in baseball, teams are carried by their aces, and that is most true when postseason play starts.

Still, pitching depth could be a slight concern. Last year Haylie Wagner held down the position of #2 ace, and she posted a 1.75 ERA and 0.92 walks plus hits per inning pitched (WHIP). This let Driesenga and Blanco work in reserve, allowing four earned runs over 34 2/3 innings of work. Both have picked up the slack in larger roles, but Blanco is also one of the Wolverines' best hitters - with a .415 batting average and the second-best OPS on the team. Basically, this team will ride and die with Betsa and Driesenga.

In her 31st year, and still no losing seasons. Credit: MGoBlog

I had mentioned that Michigan is the #2 team in the country. In the Coaches Poll, this even includes 8 first-place votes. But if Michigan is the San Antonio Spurs, the one team ahead of them in the rankings is doing its best Golden State Warriors impression: Florida is 47-4 thanks to three terrific arms (Aleshia Ocasio, Delanie Gourley, and Kelly Barnhill have combined for a sub-1.00 ERA) and some all-around solid hitting (a .318 average, .482 slugging and 66 stolen bases). Their third-best pitcher - the only one with an ERA over 1.00 - is 14-0. It also bears mentioning, in case anyone forgot, that Florida is the team that faced Michigan in last year's final.

But, that's getting a little ahead of ourselves. For now, Michigan has to be excited about playing in the Big Ten Tournament this upcoming Friday and Saturday, while the NCAA Regional starts the Friday after that. It's time to go chase a national title - championship #2. It's time to go prove something.