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A Perfect Opening Weekend and a Team Looking to Repeat: Softball Season Preview and Week 1 Recap

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Michigan won both the Big Ten regular season and tournament championships, but suffered a disappointing early exit in the NCAA Tournament. A 5-0 Opening weekend is a good start for a team trying to get back to the College World Series.

2017 NCAA Division II Women’s Softball Championship Photo by Andres Alonso/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

While most of us here in Ann Arbor would have loved to be in Tampa last weekend, for the Michigan softball team it wasn’t a sunny vacation but a five-game business trip. Playing on the campus of the University of South Florida, the Wolverines participated in the USF-Rawlings Invitational and came home undefeated.

Michigan opened on Friday with a comfortable 6-1 win over Georgia State, followed by 5-4 squeaker against Illinois St. On Saturday the Wolverines thrashed the #7 Florida Gators, a 11-2 victory that ended in six-innings due to the run rule. They made up the innings in the night cap, with a 2-1 win over USF that took 8 innings to settle. Finally, the Sunday morning getaway game delayed their flight after it took nine innings to dispatch Fresno St., 1-0.

It was the perfect opening weekend for the Wolverines and head coach Carol Hutchins, who is now in her 36th season. Last season Michigan won both the Big Ten regular season and Big Ten tournament championships, earning a 15th seed and a home regional in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan won its first two games and a berth in the regional final, and due to the double elimination format needed just one win in two games against James Madison. The Dukes shocked the Wolverines by taking both, and after a one-loss Big Ten season, Michigan didn’t even make the Super Regional.

Michigan needs to replace five starters. The biggest shoes to fill might be Faith Canfield and her .404 batting average, but Alex Sobczak and her 42 RBIs will be difficult to replace as well. Just about half of Michigan’s 2019 RBIs need to be replaced, 168 of 327, and much of their power, with departed seniors accounting for 35 of their 56 home runs. But reinforcements are here, with Lexie Blair ready to make the sophomore jump after leading the team with a .406 average as a freshman. With new power combined with a pitching staff that remains in tact after 2019, Michigan should do what it does best: reload.

Eight Michigan players started all five games in Tampa, so we should have a pretty good idea what the lineup will look like.

INFIELD

1B: Lou Allan, junior

Allan returns to the starting lineup after missing much of her sophomore year with an injury. As a freshman, she started in 25 games as a designated player and compiled 19 RBI. She showed a little power with 3 HR in her 77 AB last year, and hit two home runs in Tampa. This will be her first season as a starting infielder.

2B/DP: Julia Jimenez, freshman/Morgan Overaitis, sophomore

At second we’ll see two everyday starters platoon, with the other serving as the designated player on her off days in the field. Freshman Julia Jimenez started three of five in Tampa. Jimenez comes out of Fontana, CA, and was the #20 prospect in the nation last year according to FloSoftball. A Jimenez double was the difference making RBI in the 5-4 win over Illinois St.

Joining her will be Canton native Morgan Overaitis. As a freshman, Overaitis started 9 games at DP, batting .255. She acquitted herself well in Florida, hitting a team high 10 hits in 18 AB. Overaitis had a game winning RBI herself, hitting a single to take a 2-1 lead in extras against USF.

SS: Natalia Rodriguez, junior

Rodriguez is a key returner who has started almost every game Michigan has played in in her time at Michigan. Rodriguez improved her batting average last year, hitting .303 after hitting .250 as a sophomore.

3B: Madison Uden, senior/Bump Taylor, junior

Third base has also been split so far, with junior Bump Taylor starting three games in Tampa and senior Madison Uden starting the other two. Uden was the everyday starter at third base in 2019, and may well reclaim her job. Uden hit .263 last year, but was fourth on the team with 7 home runs. Taylor started 16 games in her first two seasons, many at first base. Her 2 RBI in Tampa matches the 2 she got in each of her first two seasons.

C: Hannah Carson, sophomore

Carson will be in her first season as the starter behind the dish after making limited appearances last year. She was error free in her eight starts, and was the same in her five starts in Tampa. She added 4 hits in 16 at bats and 2 RBI.

OUTFIELD

LF: Lexie Blair, sophomore

Blair is the highlight of the outfield, and was among Michigan’s most prolific offensive players last year. She was all-Big Ten in her first season, and led the team with 54 RBI. Lexie maintaining her freshman possession is vital to this team repeating as champs, but she had a slow start in Tampa going 2-17.

CF: Haley Hoogenraad, senior

Like Blair, Hoogenraad appeared in all 58 games last season, starting all but one. This will be her third year as an everyday starter. Hoogenraad regressed a little at the plate last year, hitting .241, but is off to a hot start this year. In Tampa she went 6-14, including the walk-off (and only) RBI in the 9-inning marathon against Fresno State.

RF: Thais Gonzalez, senior

Gonzalez’s senior season will be her first as a regular starter. She was limited last year, getting just 21 at bats. She went 3-13 with an RBI in Tampa.

BENCH

The only other player to appear in every game in Tampa was Audrey LeClair, a freshman who primarily appeared as a pinch runner and did get a run. She was the #25 prospect in the country. Clarkston senior Abby Skvarce went 2-3 as a pinch hitter, with 2 RBI. Lauren Esman went 1-1 as a pinch hitter and got a run as a pinch runner.

As a freshman last year, Gianna Carosone hit a home run in her only hit in 10 at bats. Also a sophomore, Grace Chelmen scored 10 runs last year, primarily as a pinch runner.

Three members of Michigan’s Top 10 recruiting class did not make their debut in Tampa. Outfielder Lexi Voss was the #32 prospect according to Extra Inning Softball. Jessica Garmen is a Detroit Country Day alum and was all-state behind the dish.

PITCHING

Michigan played the entirety of last season using only three pitchers, and added only two pitching recruits.

LHP: Meghan Beaubein, junior

Beaubein is the staff ace after starting 32 games last year and appearing in all but nine. Beaubien compiled a WHIP of 0.98, and had 229 strikeouts in 228 innings. In Tampa, Beaubein made three appearances. In starts against Illinios St. and USF, she had 9 and 8 strikeouts, respectively. She came in late in the 9-inning Fresno St. game and earned the win for her relief performance.

RHP: Alex Storako, sophomore

As a freshman last year, the young upstart Storako put together a 2.02 ERA and threw 190 strikeouts in just 142 innings of work. While her 59 walks were higher than Beaubein’s in fewer innings, she limited hits and her 1.03 WHIP was comparable. Storako started 3 games in Tampa including a complete game win in the showdown with ranked Florida. Storako gave up just 1 hit in 6 innings against Fresno State, and none in relief against Arizona State.

Bullpen

Sarah Schaefer pitched 17.2 innings last season, but the junior did not appear in Tampa. She had five strikeouts in 2019, and gave up just 8 earned runs. Previously mentioned freshman Lauren Esman is also listed as a pitcher. The team also added Chandler Dennis, the #16 prospect in the country according to Extra Inning Softball.

THE BIG TEN

For the past five years, Michigan and Minnesota have split all of the Big Ten regular season and tournament championships, with Michigan winning four regular seasons, and Minnesota winning three tournaments. Last year the two team race was broken up by Northwestern, who finished second in the conference before being eliminated by the Gophers in the tournament. The conference featured one other ranked team, Wisconsin. Northwestern and Minnesota both won the NCAA Tournament regionals they hosted, with Minnesota advancing to the College World Series. Northwestern was #2 in the Big Ten in recruiting, after Michigan.

DATES TO CIRCLE

  1. Sat Feb. 22 @ South Carolina: As of today this would be a ranked matchup, and as this tournament is held at South Carolina’s stadium beating a ranked team in a true road game could pay RPI dividends down the road. It will stream on SECN+, free on the ESPN app with an SEC Network login.
  2. Sat Feb. 29-Sun March 1, Judi Garman Classic, Fullerton, CA: This will be a star studded affair with Michigan likely taking on three ranked teams. They’ll start with a Saturday Texas two-step, facing #7 Texas and #18 Texas Tech. The Wolverines will then face current #1 Washington. What happens this weekend could easily determine how much Michigan has to travel in the NCAA Tournament.
  3. Fri-Sun April 3-5 v. Minnesota: Despite the fact that these two teams have battled at the top of the Big Ten standings, regular season on-field battles have been few and far between. This will be the first regular season series against the Gophers since 2015, and the first in Ann Arbor since 2014. It will be a packed crowd at Alumni Field (many sections are already down to single tickets!), and will set the tone for the rest of the season.
  4. Fri-Sun April 10-12 @ Northwestern: This could be Michigan’s most difficult road series of the conference season, and depending on what happens against Minnesota they may not have any breathing room.
  5. Wed April 15 v. Michigan State: Michigan’s annual mid-week game against Michigan State is always one of the highlights of the season. It always sells out, and Michigan has not lost a regular season game against Michigan State since 2009 (there are two Big Ten Tournament losses in that time). It will be a party atmosphere, and an opportunity for the team to earn some momentum going into the home stretch of the season.

THE WEEK AHEAD

Before any of that, the Wolverines will head to Chapel Hill for the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. Michigan will play two double-headers, with games against Louisville and hosts North Carolina each day. UNC opened 3-2, with a victory over #2 Alabama and a loss to #9 FSU. Louisville is 1-4, though their only win is over a #21 Ole Miss. Wisconsin will join the Wolverines in North Carolina, but Michigan will not play Wisconsin and Louisville will not play UNC. While nothing has been announced, it seems likely that the games against the Tar Heels will be available on ACCNX (on the ESPN app, free with an ACCN login).