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Michigan Softball 2018 Season Preview

[ED: Happy Softball Opening Day! Every year South Bend Wolverine writes these fantastic previews of Michigan's continuing softball dynasty. He put this up before the season started but they've already won two games, the second a no hitter by freshman pitcher Meghan Beaubien. I've added photos and captions. Enjoy the winning! -Seth]

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More great seniors where that came from! [JD Scott]

It seems as though Michigan softball is often at its best when other sports are scuffling.  Michigan’s mediocre 2005 football team played in the same year that Michigan softball won a national championship.  Softball’s 9-year Big Ten conference championship streak spanned the entire Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke years, covering some Beilein struggles and the late Berenson decline as well.  The high point of that run, the 2015 “Year of the Pizza” national runner-up squad, made names like Romero, Lawrence, Wagner, and Susalla household names while Wolverine fans were reeling from the collapse of the Hoke/Brandon fiasco.  If this pattern holds, then middling seasons in football, hockey, and arguably basketball as well just might be a good omen for the 2018 softball team.

Whatever the auguries, this is a team resolutely looking towards the future.  The conference championship streak is broken, all the biggest stars of 2015 have graduated, and one of the most exciting recruiting classes in program history has arrived in town, ready to get down to business.  The past is in the past.  With first-pitch just two days away, it’s time for a new generation to write some legends of their own.

Departures

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Will it be weird not having Megan Betsa around? You bet your ass it will! [Marc-Grégor Campredon]

Michigan bids a fond farewell to a storied senior class.  The four players who made up the class of 2017 played on some of the greatest teams in Michigan softball history, including one of my personal all-time, all-sport favorite teams to watch, the 2015 team.  These women won an astonishing 202 games as Wolverines.  In conference play, they brought home 3 Big Ten Championships and 1 Big Ten Tournament Championship, while in the post-season they won 3 NCAA regionals, made two trips to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series, and finished as National Runners-Up once.

The star of the group was right-handed strike-out artist Megan Betsa.  She made 1st Team All-Big Ten 3 times, and 2nd Team All-American thrice as well.  Her name won’t be dislodged from the Michigan record books anytime soon, as she finished her career second in team history with 6 no-hitters, third with 102 wins and 1,201 strikeouts, and fourth with 37 shutouts.  As a senior, she led the nation in Ks by a country mile, setting down 412 batters on strikes, 52 more than the second-place pitcher.  On a team that didn’t have a deep rotation, Betsa was an iron horse, throwing 235.1 innings while maintaining a remarkably high level of play throughout.

[Hit THE JUMP for the new wave, just like the old wave]

Kelly Christner was also a shining star in her four years in Ann Arbor.  She burst onto the scene as a sophomore in 2015, hitting .393 for the season and smashing 21 home runs, one of the best marks in program history.  She suffered a bit of a slump in 2016, feeling the pressure of that 1st team All-America honor from the year before, but still managed to have a productive year.  As a senior, she came out guns-blazing and was one of the most important leaders on a team that had lost a lot of talent to graduation.  Christner led the team in most offensive categories, including batting average (.402), home runs (9, tied with Faith Canfield), and on-base percentage (.508).  Replacing her production will be Michigan’s top offensive challenge heading into 2018.

Lindsay Montemarano was more of a role-player, and had to fend off more than one serious challenger to retain her spot in Michigan’s starting line-up, but always managed to do enough to stay on the field.  She played stout defense at the hot corner, and while she never had the highest batting average, she had a knack for coming up with big hits at the right moment.  She was also a memorable emotional leader, most notably inspiring 2015’s famous pizza theme.

Abby Ramirez was the fourth senior to graduate in 2017, and one of the most consistent on-base threats in recent memory.  A slap hitter, her power numbers were always negligible (she only hit two home runs in her career, both in one weekend against Rutgers), but she knew how to get on base and make teams pay with her speed.  Living in the 9-spot for much of her career, she turned over the line-up with a regularity that will be sorely missed.

New Faces (and one Old One)

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Girl's still got it. [JD Scott]

Michigan welcomes a substantial freshman class this year, with five new players on the team, including two of the top recruits in the nation.  I’ve got a lot of things to say about them, especially Meghan Beaubien, who comes to Ann Arbor with more hype than any single player since Sierra Romero.  That can wait until the sections below, though.  For now, let’s just take a look at the “Hello” posts that Wolverine Devotee for three of our top recruits:

  • Meghan Beaubien (LHP): http://mgoblog.com/mgoboard/hello-meghan-beaubien-sb
  • Lou Allan (1B/OF): http://mgoblog.com/mgoboard/hello-alexis-lou-allan-sb
  • Taylor Bump (SS/3B): http://mgoblog.com/mgoboard/hello-taylor-bump-sb

Michigan also picked up a couple other players late in the process, including the first ever Wolverine softball player to come from Iowa in RHP Sarah Schaefer and another national top-60 player in Natalia Rodriguez.

  • Sarah Schaefer (RHP): (MGoBlue.com bio) http://mgoblue.com/roster.aspx?rp_id=16660
  • Natalia Rodriguez (2B/SS): (MGoBlue.com article on her late signing) http://mgoblue.com/news/2017/4/13/Wolverines_Add_Rodriguez_to_Heralded_Recruiting_Class.aspx?path=softball

As you can see, this is a class that will be expected to contribute in a big way from day one, featuring two top-10 players and two more in the top-70.  Michigan has seen a lot of talent graduate over the last two years, so these players will need to grow up fast if Michigan is going to compete at the levels they’re accustomed to this season.

In the Circle

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Senior Tera Blanco played 34 games at first base, 21 at pitcher, and two at DH last year.[JD Scott]

Heading into 2015, Michigan is once again trotting out a pair of killer Bs in the circle in Beaubien and Blanco.  While junior RHP Leah Crockett is still around, she has yet to show the ability to be a major contributor.  Freshman righty Sarah Schaefer may be in the same boat – at the very least, it will probably take her a year or two to get up to major Division 1 softball speed.  Her appearances in Michigan’s fall ball exhibition play indicated a player working through some growing pains at the higher level of competition.  That means that the great bulk of the pitching duties will fall on the shoulders of senior Tera Blanco and freshman phenom Meghan Beaubien.

Heading into her final season in Ann Arbor, Tera Blanco is looking to finally make good on her substantial promise as a pitcher.  She’s done well at the plate, especially in 2016 when she hit .404 while bashing 12 homers, but has never become the elite pitcher that the coaching staff hoped she’d be.  A rotation piece as a freshman and sophomore, Blanco was pressed into more serious duty last year as the only other pitcher capable of logging serious innings after Betsa.  Betsa, though, was the clear ace, usually taking the 1st and 3rd games of weekend series, and drawing almost all of the toughest assignments in non-conference invitationals.  If Michigan is going to improve on last year’s results and get back to winning the conference and hosting a regional, Blanco will need to step up her game in her second season as a regular starter.

When it comes to Michigan pitching in 2018, however, the name everyone wants to talk about is Meghan Beaubien.  Committed to Michigan for years, Beaubien has been lighting high school softball teams around the state on fire and building up a major hype train.  Beaubien hurled a boggling 1,442 strike-outs as a high school pitcher, won state championships in 2015, 2016, and 2017, with her most impressive performance coming in 2016, when she dished out back-to-back perfect games in the semis and the final to clinch the state crown.  Beating up on over-matched Michigan players (not a major center of HS softball) is one thing, but competing nationally is another.  Beaubien was up to that task as well, though, putting together an impressive travel ball résumé, highlighted by a 16U national title in 2016.

Michigan fans got an early glimpse of Beaubien in a Michigan jersey in the fall, as she stepped into the circle several times during exhibition play.  While the fall ball opponents Michigan takes on are not especially intimidating (featuring teams like CMU, WMU, and MSU), they’re still college players, more physically and technically developed than high school opponents.  Beaubien went through them like a buzz-saw.  Her exhibition stat line: 32 Ks, 3 BBs, 4 hits, over the course of 18 innings pitched.  Much bigger challenges await this freshman star, but the early returns are promising for her potential to play a major role – hopefully to be the ace – in 2018.  Michigan will need her to deliver, game in and game out, to compete at the highest level.  It's a lot to ask of a freshman, but this strike-out queen is showing all the signs of being up to the task.

At the Plate

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Useful swing players Amanda Vargas (above) and Taylor Swearingen will try to finally lock down a regular place in the lineup. [Marc-Grégor Campredon]

Offensively, Michigan fans were absolutely spoiled in 2015 and 2016, looking on as players like the Sierras, Kelly Christner, and Kelsey Susalla racked up team records and set the national pace.  In large part because of that, a pretty darned good offense in 2017 at times felt like a slog to watch.  An undeniable step back from the heights of the previous two seasons, the 2017 team was still #12 in the nation in batting average and #13 in on-base percentage and total scoring.  The bigger problem was luck – Michigan got a lot of hits, but often missed out on the big one in the key situation to flip a L to a W.  Nevertheless, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, even though the team loses two of their top hitters to graduation.

Last year, Michigan saw several players take significant steps forward in terms of their offensive production.  Headlining this group is junior utility player Faith Canfield.  After showing flashes of promise as a freshman, the sophomore version of Canfield became the second most prolific offensive player for the Maize & Blue, hitting .398 while smacking 9 long balls.  She could stand to get a bit more patient at the plate – only drawing 11 walks all season held her OBP back considerably.  Still, she’s on track to be the featured player in Michigan’s batting order this season, and even incremental improvement could put her on track for an All-American level season.

Fellow-junior Natalie Peters and senior Aidan Falk are also going to be key cogs.  Mainly a pinch-hitter as a freshman, Peters hit .313 in very limited action.  As a sophomore and a regular starter, though, she upped her average to .361.  She also needs a bit more patience at the plate, especially since her role is simply to get on board (she only has 5 career extra bases hits, out of 62 total).  Look for her to hit lead-off throughout the year, setting the table for Canfield and others.  Falk, meanwhile, showed tremendous promise in 2015, hitting .344 with 8 home runs in her rookie campaign.  She fought through a slight sophomore slump before returning to form as a junior, going .347 with 7 long balls.  If she can build on a strong junior year and reach the upper .300s with double-digit homers, it will bode very well for the Michigan offense.

Several other seniors fall into the “X-factor” category.  Tera Blanco heads this list.  A great hitter as an underclassman, Blanco was a first-team All-American as a 1B, hitting over .400, reaching base on the majority of her plate appearances, and punching out double-digit homers to boot.  When compelled to take on a full pitching load last year, though, her numbers declined sharply.  As long as she’s serviceable, she’ll stay in the line-up, but if she can get back to something resembling that sophomore outburst while continuing to improve in the circle, she can deliver a memorable senior season.  Others in this swing category include players like Amanda Vargas and Taylor Swearingen.  Both have gotten a good number of at bats over the years and impressed at times, but neither has been able to lock down a permanent starting role.  Seeing one or both of these players come through early on in 2018 would be a very good sign.  Juniors Alex Sobczak and Courtney Richardson are in a similar position.  As they head into the second half of their Michigan careers, they’ll need to break out sooner rather than later if they want to fend off the young talent.

Some of that talent is returning from last year’s squad.  Madison Uden in particular was a popular choice as a pinch hitter and played well at times.  Another year of development could bode well.  Even more tantalizing, however, are the highly-recruited freshmen Hutch reeled in this year.  Alexis “Lou” Allan was considered one of the 10 best players in this year’s recruiting class, and rightly so.  Coming out of the softball crucible that is California, she hit .600 over the course of her HS career, and added plenty of homers to boot.  Infielders Taylor Bump and Natalia Rodriguez aren’t far behind.  The two Floridians both ranked around 60 nationally, hitting very well as high school players.  They’ll be expected to contribute from day one.

In the Field

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Alexander's no slouch AT the plate either. [Bryan Fuller]

Defensively, the question mark for Michigan each of the last two years has been the catcher position.  After the luxury of four years of Lauren Sweet, who got stolen on about as often as Mike Hart fumbled, it’s been a bit of a bumpy ride behind the plate.  Aidan Falk, Alex Sobczak, and Katie Alexander have all seen time behind the plate in their careers, but it was the former Saline Hornet Alexander who locked the spot down as 2017 rolled along.  Her good relationship with Megan Betsa combined with an aversion to errors and increased offensive production to make her the regular starter over the more heavily-recruited Sobczak.  The hope is that she’ll continue to improve and develop similar chemistry with the new Meghan that she had with the old one, providing some needed stability at a position that has been a sore spot of late.  If not, it is at least comforting to know that there are other experienced options the coaches can turn to.

Elsewhere in the field, Michigan has been absolutely stellar on defense of late.  Last year, they boasted a fielding percentage of .982, good for #2 nation-wide, behind only national runners-up Florida.  This continues a multi-year trend, as the Wolverines were in the top-5 the year before as well.  The infield will look a bit different this time around, with stalwarts Abby Ramirez and Lindsay Montemarano moving on, but this coaching staff has earned the right to a certain amount of trust in this department.  Repeating in the top-5 for the third year running might be too much to ask, but expect to see another defensively sound team taking the field in Ann Arbor.

Schedule

Preseason polls are meaningless in any sport, and in my experience, they are more of a guessing game in softball than just about anywhere else.  For the most part, they simply reflect performance from the previous year, with at most slight adjustments due to high-profile graduations.  Thus, Michigan was significantly, and obviously, over-rated at #6/#6 (USA Today/NFCA Coaches & ESPN.com/USA Softball) last year, and I won’t be surprised if Minnesota’s #16/#18 ranking this year proves too much to sustain in the face of their golden generation’s graduation.  Even so, Michigan’s #18/#16 ranking feels just about right.  This is a team that should contend for a regional seed and could end up in the top-ten if things break their way, but still has a lot left to prove.

Fortunately, they’ll have some good chances to do just that, as Carol Hutchins always believes in scheduling quality opponents from day one.  Yet again, the Wolverines will take on perennial powerhouse #2 Florida in the season’s opening weekend as they head South to the USF tournament.  From there, it’s off to Tallahassee for the ACC/Big Ten challenge, where Michigan will play a pair of games each against Notre Dame (just outside the top-25) and #9/#6 Florida State.  The Texas invitational the following week will provide more challenging games, including a pair against the Longhorns, who are also just outside the rankings.  The annual trip to the Judi Garman Classic in California features match-ups with #10/#12 Baylor and the #22/#24 ULL Ragin’ Cajuns.  They Cajuns are in the midst of some major turmoil involving the firing of their coach for abusive behavior, but went 47-8 a year ago and are often among the nation’s best.  After that, the gauntlet is over, as a pair of invitationals at which Michigan will be the only power team round out the traveling portion of the year.  It’s not as grueling of a non-conference schedule as we’ve sometimes seen, but there will be more than enough opportunities for the team to build the résumé and grow by facing quality opposition.

After a single game against Central Michigan to open up the home slate, Big Ten season will get underway.  Due to the vagaries of Big Ten scheduling and the difficulties of making a 14-team conference work in a sport based around 3-game weekend series, fans will yet again be deprived of the chance to watch the queens of the conference – Michigan and Minnesota – square off in a regular season series.  Indeed, the Wolverines will hardly face any of the teams who were relevant in the Big Ten a year ago.  A 3-game homestand against Ohio State in the final weekend of the regular season will be Michigan’s only match-up against a Big Ten team that had a winning record in conference play in 2017.  Road trips to Iowa, Penn State, and Indiana are not especially daunting, and it’s hard to quake in one’s boots at the prospect of Purdue, Maryland, and Rutgers coming to town.  The annual home-and-home with MSU will have a little extra intrigue, as the Spartans spoiled the party last year when Michigan hosted the Big Ten tournament, ousting our women in the first game, but that upset still marks the only Green & White win in the series that anyone can remember.  The Big Ten figures to be a top-heavy conference once again, and the season-ending tournament in Madison might provide some much-needed opportunities for quality wins if NCAA seeding is still an open question.

Bold Predictions

I always start this section by revisiting my wild-ass guesses from a year ago, and seeing how well I did.  Let’s go to the tape:

“Expect the non-conference schedule to be a bit rougher this year than last, especially when a re-structured Michigan batting order has to face elite pitching.  If Michigan is able to stay a good cut above 50-50 in games against highly-ranked teams, I’ll be reasonably satisfied, especially if they can avoid picking up any ugly losses.  There’s no reason this team shouldn’t be on track to host a regional (top-16), but cracking the top-5 might be too much to ask.”

Unfortunately, I was right to expect trouble against elite teams in non-conference play.  Michigan went a disappointing 2-6-1 against ranked teams, with both of the wins coming against Arizona State, who just barely held on to a spot in the top-25 over the course of the season.  A couple clutch hits in the Florida and Florida State games would’ve changed the outlook here in a big way, but 2017 wasn’t Michigan’s year to get lucky bounces.  Michigan would enter Big Ten play sporting a #19 ranking, slightly lower than I anticipated.

“The toughest part of these predictions is projecting the Big Ten.  I don’t see anyone challenging Michigan & Minnesota’s dominance as the queens of the conference … It’s really a guessing game until we see the teams take the field a few times, but I’m high on the Groenewegen-led Gophers, even though the pollsters put us ahead of them.  If a second starting pitcher doesn’t emerge and the Wolverines find themselves heavily Betsa-dependent, they might be better-suited to making a run in the Big Ten tournament (held in Ann Arbor this year) than to grinding out the 20+ wins that will likely be needed to pick up the regular season title.”

My hunch that Minnesota was the horse to back in the Big Ten proved accurate.  Michigan actually put together a good conference record, aided by a disappointingly soft schedule (thanks, Delaney), but ugly losses to OSU, Maryland, and Wisconsin proved too much in comparison with the blistering pace set by a once-in-a-generation Minnesota team.  Sadly, I was wrong about the Big Ten tournament, as Michigan collapsed late in a horrifying loss to MSU.

“Once we get to the NCAA tournament, I expect Michigan to host a regional, although that’s not a holy lock in the way it has been for the last couple seasons.  Even so, I believe in Betsa’s arm to get us enough quality wins to impress the committee that much at least.  With all the question marks on the roster, I can’t go so far as to predict a super-regional seed, though, and a WCWS appearance will require some break-out seasons.”

The poor record against elite opponents combined with the weak end to the Big Ten season in keeping Michigan out of the circle of regional hosts.  While Betsa gave it her all in the Washington regional, it wasn’t enough, as Michigan made a first-round exit for the first time since 2011.

“Finally, a freebie: needing only 16 wins to reach the 1,500 plateau, and holding a 16-game lead on #2 Mike Candrea, Carol Hutchins is a cinch to become the first softball coach in NCAA history to reach that particular benchmark.  Already the winningest coach in both softball history and Michigan history, Hutch just adds to her legend with each passing year.”

Well, yeah.  Hutch remains Hutch, and that’s good news for the Maize & Blue.

Now let’s look ahead to the 2018 season.  Here’s what I’m seeing in my crystal ball.

  • There are sure to be some bumps in the road early on as Meghan Beaubien starts facing seasoned Division 1 batters, and I am not optimistic about Blanco’s ability to pull games against elite opponents out of the fire.  Nevertheless, I’m high on Michigan’s non-conference potential this year.  Beaubien will have some struggles, but she’ll also shine in some big moments.  The offense has a lot of promise, especially if the freshmen can contribute early on.  Look for Michigan to nose their way over .500 in games against ranked teams, and to dominate weaker opposition.  I expect us to be sitting in a regional seed (top-16) by the time we play at Alumni Field for the first time.
     
  • The Big Ten schedule sets up favorably for Michigan to start a new streak of conference titles.  It’s always tough to be consistent over the long haul, but Michigan almost literally couldn’t have an easier schedule here.  Minnesota does get to skip out on us and OSU, but they have to face more of the middle while not getting any games against dire Maryland and Rutgers squads.  I expect Michigan to re-assert conference dominance by winning the regular season championship.  I’ll go further than that, though.  On the strength of Meghan Beaubien’s arm, I foresee a Big Ten double, as the freshman will likely be the best pitcher in the league, and that more than anything predicts tournament success.
     
  • I’m also high on our chances in the NCAA tournament.  I expect this team to be around the lower end of the top-10.  This means we should end up hosting a regional we can feel confident about, and hosting a super-regional is a realistic possibility.  Even if we don’t host in the supers, though, we should be playing in an evenly-matched series (something like an 8/9 or 7/10 match-up), and a return trip to the WCWS is very much a possibility.  I’m not quite ready to call a trip to Oklahoma City, but I like our chances a lot more than I did 12 months ago.


This post first appeared on Mgoblog, please read the originial post: here

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Michigan Softball 2018 Season Preview

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