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2016 Softball Postseason Primer

[Bryan Fuller. All the photos in here are. Also Fuller stayed on us 24/7 to get this out.]

A Fast Start That Felt Slow. Michigan softball came into the 2016 season riding a tremendous wave of momentum from their phenomenal 2015 performance that saw them fall just one game short of reaching the sport’s highest glory. The newfound momentum was a mixed blessing however, as it brought with it raised expectations and the pressure that comes hand in hand with success. The 2015 team was able to play free and have fun at every stage, in large part because they were supposed to be good, but not that kind of good. Their record-shattering performances were as much of a surprise to the players as to the fans, and we all went on the crazy ride together. In 2016, by contrast, Michigan came in bearing all the pressure that comes with a #2 pre-season ranking.

Even with all the pressure, if you focus on the win/loss column, Michigan blazed through the non-conference schedule with scarcely a bump in the road. Losses to #1 Florida and to then-top-ten Washington (now #13) are simply things that happen, while the Wolverines piled up plenty of signature Ws, including a pair at the home turf of a now-top-ten Florida State squad and a 16-9 slugfest triumph over Oklahoma that doubled as a Romero-family grudge match. An 8-6 thriller on the home turf of UCLA, the ultimate softball blue-blood, and a merciless 13-0 blasting of Missouri rounded out Michigan’s marquee victories.

In addition to the quantifiable problems, there was an intangible sense that the 2016 team hadn’t really come together quite yet. Hutch talked in interviews about how the team wasn’t responding well at the beginning of spring practice, and only locked in over time. The pizza-making passion of 2015 had not yet been replaced by any new charming quirks or wacky antics. Even many of the wins felt simply dutiful, rather than joyful. A 3-1 W over a mediocre Virginia Tech team or a 1-0 squeaker over an Illinois State team that would go on to post a losing record in the Missouri Valley Conference felt more ho-hum than hail, hail. The team was still a strong favorites to win the Big Ten and even to retain a super-regional (top-8) seed, but there was a clear need for something more.

[Hit THE JUMP for The Team The Team The Team, The Enemy, The Enemy, The Enemy, and The Hutch The Hutch The Hutch.]

Hutch Stands Alone

The wins piled up, however, one way or another. As important as the numbers were to Michigan’s 2016 fortunes, a grander milestone also crept closer and closer. Head coach Carol Hutchins has led the Michigan softball program since 1985 and racked up more than her fair share of victories over her 30+ seasons in Ann Arbor. Coming into the 2016, only the legendary Margie Wright had more career wins than Hutch, but as Big Ten season got underway, Michigan’s own legend was creeping steadily closer to Wright’s mark. The second weekend of conference play saw Michigan head to Bloomington, Indiana for a three-game set with the Hoosiers with Hutch needing only two wins to set a new all-time record.

The middling Indiana squad has often been a sacrificial lamb on the altar of Michigan’s Big Ten ambitions, but this year they would be blasted on the altar of softball immortality. On April Fool’s Day, the Hoosiers gave way to the Wolverines to the tune of an 11-5 trouncing, setting up a Saturday date with destiny. The Wolverines did not disappoint, dismantling IU in an efficient 5 inning, 8-0 run-rule affair. With a staggering 1,458 career wins, all but a handful of which have come wearing Maize & Blue, Carol Hutchins finally stood alone atop the mountain of softball greats.

Hutch’s praises have been sung far & wide by fans, reporters, fellow coaches, and above all her former players, and there is little that I can add to that chorus. All that I can say for my part is that if you want to know about the character of Carol Hutchins, all you need to look at is what she had to say upon achieving this milestone. The woman who came to Michigan as a combination head coach/groundskeeper/athletic department secretary and, by sheer force of personal will, fashioned a national powerhouse in the unlikeliest of locales only wanted to talk about everyone else. Hutch immediately turned all the credit for her incredible achievement over to her players and assistant coaches. If anyone still wonders why California girls jump at the chance to brave the Michigan winter to play for Hutchins, you’ve got your answer right there.

Heating Up and Having Fun Again

Michigan had no chance to rest on the laurels of an all-time record, however, as they found themselves in the middle of a heated race for the Big Ten regular season championship with challenger Minnesota. The vagaries of Big Ten scheduling meant that neither team would see the other in league play, making the margin for error virtually nil on either side. After a loss in Lincoln, Nebraska, Michigan found themselves a game back of Minnesota, with no margin for any more slip-ups.

Fortunately, Michigan did not need any margin, as they bounced back immediately, taking the next two games from the Huskers, and avoiding a potential mid-week trap game, winning 3-0 over MSU on the road the following Wednesday. Just as importantly, the Golden Gophers were not able to dodge their trap, inexplicably dropping both games of a home double-header to thoroughly mediocre Wisconsin. Just like that, Michigan’s destiny was back in their own hands, with conference leaders Ohio State coming to town. Playing in front of sell-out crowds, Michigan emphatically put the Buckeyes in their place, sweeping the series and out-scoring the visitors 18-4 on the weekend.

From that point on, there would be no looking back. Keeping a firm grip on their narrow 1-game lead in the conference standings, Michigan embarked on a carpet-bombing campaign against their remaining Big Ten opponents. Following the OSU series, only two more Michigan games would last 7 innings for the rest of the regular season (a 4-2 victory in Happy Valley and a 5-2 mid-week win over Central Michigan). Michigan piled up 9 run-rule wins over the course of 11 games (8 of which were of the 5-inning variety), outscoring their opponents a staggering 103 to 10 during that stretch and securing their ninth consecutive Big Ten regular season championship, this one of the undisputed variety.

During this same stretch, Michigan found whatever it was that had been lacking in the early going. Betsa’s injury concerns faded away, and significant improvement to her drop ball helped offset the rule changes that hamstrung her early on, leading to a pile of double-digit strikeout games and Big Ten Pitcher of the Year honors. Early on in the season, the Michigan offense was effective, but too reliant on stars hitting high in the order. As conference play rolled along and the weather warmed up, the bats started to heat up as well. By the end of the regular season, virtually the entire Michigan line-up was hitting over .300 for the year. The fun was back as well, with dabs for doubles on the field and sold-out crowds packing the Alumni Field bleachers week in and week out. While the Big Ten tournament ended with a bit of a thud in the form of a 4-3 extra-innings loss to a solid Minnesota team, Michigan’s momentum remains strong. Any SEC, Big-12, or Pac-12 fans hoping that Michigan would come into the NCAA tournament still carrying the weight of 2015 on their shoulders are in for a rude awakening. This team has their identity, their ace, and their bats. They’re ready to take on the world.

Players to Watch

Michigan brings a true murderer’s row to the plate this season. The offense is 2nd nationally in batting average, and 1st in on-base percentage and runs per game. For the casual fan, here are two offensive players to keep your eyes on, and one pitcher.

Sierra Romero

Michigan’s offense is headlined by senior Sierra Romero, or “Romo” to her teammates. Her personal trophy case is packed with Big Ten & national awards, and she holds two all-time NCAA records (grand slams & runs scored). She is one of the most dynamic players ever to take the field not only for Michigan, but in the history of the sport of softball. As her grand slam record & eye-catching home run totals testify, she can hit for power with the best in the game. At the same time, she’s a fantastic singles hitter as well, as indicated by her .472 batting average. Even better, her plate discipline is off the charts, rarely striking out and reaching base nearly 60% of the time she steps to the plate. If you are new to softball & tuning in for the post-season, make sure your eyes are glued to the screen whenever she’s in the batter’s box. These are some of our final chances to see a truly special Wolverine ply her trade.

Sierra Lawrence

Sometimes referred to as “the other Sierra”, Sierra Lawrence or “Silo” is nobody’s second fiddle. While she doesn’t get quite the acclaim Romero garners, she has been a star for all four of her years in the Maize & Blue, and is having arguably her finest season in her last go-round. Lawrence is almost invariably Michigan’s lead-off hitter, and sets the table for the power hitters with regularity, reaching base well over 50% of the time. Her offensive numbers are nearly all just a tick below Romero’s on the season, with one notable exception – she is a flawless 20 for 20 in stolen bases. Her steals don’t all come at 2nd base, either. Fast & highly intelligent, Lawrence is a holy terror on the base paths. Especially if she & Romero are both aboard, be on the lookout for double-steals & all manner of other games.

Megan Betsa

While fifth-year senior Sara Driesenga has been a vital steadying force, and will almost certainly see some postseason action, the ace of the staff is without a doubt Megan Betsa. Betsa has significant tournament experience, but has yet to really excel at this level. Nevertheless, she locked down a well-deserved second straight Big Ten Pitcher of the Year award this year, and is surely chomping at the bit to get back out on the field. Betsa is a straight-up strike-out merchant, leading the nation with 11.5 Ks per 7-innings. Michigan’s bid for national glory may well hinge upon their ace’s performance, so keep a close eye on the junior righty. If the Ks start piling up, Michigan might be ready to make a deep run.

The Rest of the Line-Up

Michigan has so many stars that I could easily do a paragraph on every regular starter and even some of the bench players, but then we’d be here all day.  Here’s the quick word on the other players we can expect to play a role in the postseason:
Sara Driesenga, 5th-year SR RHP – More of a ground-ball pitcher than Betsa.  Expect her to be featured in relief, games that aren’t must-wins, or when Hutch wants a change of pace.
Terra Blanco, SO 1B/RHP – Has yet to make a major impact in the circle, but has blown up as a sophomore at the plate, bringing a great combination of average & power.
Kelsey Susalla, SR UT – A quiet leader, emerged into a star as an upper-classman.  One of Michigan’s biggest threats to go deep.
Kelly Christner, JR OF – Has struggled to recapture her sparkling 2015 form, but remains a powerful bat with the ability to put the ball over the fence at any time.
Aidan Falk, SO C – Officially listed as a 1B/IF, Falk has filled in at the shaky catcher position for Michigan this year, bringing a measure of stability on defense along with a powerful bat.
Lindsay Montemarano, JR IF – Monte has locked down the hot corner for Michigan for years now.  Sometimes struggles at the plate; at her best when she stays disciplined & draws walks.
Abby Ramirez, JR IF – Batting in the 9-hole, Ramirez is virtually a second lead-off hitter.  Not much power, but the crafty slapper turns the Michigan line-up over with astonishing regularity.
Faith Canfield, Amanda Vargas, Alex Sobczak – All three have started at times this year, all have come off the bench some as well.  Canfield has come on strong of late and is the most likely to see starting action in the tournament.  Any of them might get their chance if Hutch feels the need to mix things up & give the offense a spark.

Regional Opponents

When the tournament bracket was announced, most Michigan fans were fairly pleased with the draw that the Wolverines got. There are challenges in every region, but this one seems navigable, especially given the double-elimination format that allows room for an off game (a fail-safe Michigan very much hopes not to invoke any time soon!). To conclude this preview, then, let’s take a look at the opposition Michigan will face in the Ann Arbor regional.


Regional schedule
Friday, May 20
Game 1 #2 seed Notre Dame vs. #3 seed Miami (Ohio), 4:30 p.m.  BTN/BTN2Go
Game 2 #1 seed Michigan vs. #4 seed ValpFriday, May 20 BTN/BTN2Go
Game 1 #2 seed Notre Dame vs. #3 seed Miami (Ohio), 4:30 p.m.  BTN/BTN2Go
Game 2 #1 seed Michigan vs. #4 seed Valparaiso, 7 p.m.  BTN/BTN2Go
Saturday, May 21
Game 3 Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, Noon  BTN2Go (BTN TBD)
Game 4 Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 2:30 p.m.  BTN2Go (BTN TBD)
Game 5 Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 winner, 5 p.m.  BTN2Go (BTN TBD)
Sunday, May 22
Game 6 Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 2 p.m.  BTN/BTN2Go
Game 7 (if necessary) Game 6 winner vs. Game 6 loser, 4:30 p.m. BTN/BTN2Go
Saturday, May 21
Game 3 Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, Noon  BTN2Go (BTN TBD)
Game 4 Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 2:30 p.m.  BTN2Go (BTN TBD)
Game 5 Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 winner, 5 p.m.  BTN2Go (BTN TBD)
Sunday, May 22
Game 6 Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 2 p.m.  BTN/BTN2Go
Game 7 (if necessary) Game 6 winner vs. Game 6 loser, 4:30 p.m. BTN/BTN2Go

Michigan’s first opponent, the Crusaders represent one of the stranger entries in the 2016 NCAA softball tournament. They come in on an odd sort of hot streak, having won 4 straight to clinch the Horizon League Championship & the attendant automatic bid. At the same time, they have nothing remotely resembling a signature win on their résumé. Even worse, they lost their first 11 games of the season before finally squeaking out a 2-run win over the Blue Hose of Presbyterian College. With an 18-32 season record, Valparaiso may well be the worst team in the field of 64.

The impression given by their record is confirmed by a glance at the statistics. Despite playing an extremely soft schedule, only two players on the entire roster are hitting over .300. Carly Trepanier and Taylor Nadler look to be the Crusaders’ best hitters & most reliable at reaching base. Sam Stewart, meanwhile, leads the team in home runs and seems to be the biggest threat to go deep. On defense, Taylor Weissenhofer is the closest thing Valpo has to an ace, but with an ERA over 4 and an uninspiring K/BB ratio, that designation seems largely technical. The rest of the pitching staff is simply dismal, with the other three hurlers having ERAs close to or above 6, and more likely to issue a walk than a strike-out. Nothing is set in stone until the games are played, but a loss to this squad would be a massive disappointment and a serious warning sign in terms of Michigan’s high ambitions.

Notre Dame

By far the biggest threat Michigan faces in the regional, Notre Dame is in Ann Arbor more for travel reasons than strict seeding. The Irish are firmly entrenched in the top-25, bearing a number of quality wins, most notably a 5-4 home victory over #8 national seed Florida State (they also lost to FSU twice, 14-5 that same day and 7-3 in the ACC Final). They have very few shady losses, with road slip-ups against Syracuse & NC State (two Ls to each) being the only major black marks on their record.

On offense, ND presents a deep, balanced line-up. 8 hitters are over .300 on the year, with sisters Karley & Ali Wester headlining the show with averages well over .400. Karley especially is found of swiping bases, with a very impressive 42 thefts on the season. With Michigan’s catcher situation being a bit of a sore spot this year, the Westers could be a danger on the base paths. Caitlyn Brooks and Micaela Arizmendi provide the power for ND, and the two are near carbon copies of each other. No other Domers are close to their team leading 11 & 10 HRs on the season, though. There won’t be any no-hitters against this team, but if Michigan can scatter the hits & avoid bringing Brooks & Arizmendia to the plate with runners aboard, the damage can be controlled.

In the circle, ND rotates pitchers frequently. Allie Rhodes is the most frequent starter, followed by Rachel Nasland, but neither has thrown many complete games – Katie Beriont, meanwhile, appears frequently in a relieving capacity while almost never starting, a relative rarity in college softball. All three have solid numbers, but none leap off the page. Rhodes is the most overpowering pitcher, leading the team in Ks by a wide margin. Expect the Irish to try to keep Michigan’s hitters off balance by switching their pitchers in & out. If they can keep the Wolverines from locking in on any one of the trio, they could make things interesting. Over the course of the weekend, though, it seems likely that Michigan’s mighty bats will figure something out.

Miami (NTM)

Finally, the Miami Redhawks will also be making the trip to Ann Arbor. There is a fairly strong chance that Michigan will never see the MAC champions given the format, but the possibility is out there. Miami played about the sort of schedule you might expect a MAC team to play, and faired reasonably well, going 34-21 overall. The only thing remotely resembling a quality win on the record, however, is a late-February victory over a mediocre Maryland team.

Like Valparaiso, not many of Miami’s hitters have impressive average or OBP numbers. They do have a few boppers, though, with 5 players hitting 7 or more HRs on the year. Michaela Schlattman and Taylor Shuey are the biggest threats, leading the team in batting and long balls. If Michigan does face Miami, it might be a good opportunity to give Betsa a rest and put Driesenga in the circle, as she is a bit less prone to giving up homers, and should be able to limit Miami even without a pile of strike-outs. In the circle, Amber Logemann gets the lion’s share of innings for the Redhawks and has a respectable 2.40 ERA. She has a strong preference for the strike-out, but like many strike-out merchants, is also prone to conceding home runs. Against Michigan’s battery, that might prove her undoing.


Notre Dame should provide a challenge, but this regional sets up well for Michigan, deservedly so given their #2 national seed. An upset loss might beckon if the Wolverines don’t bring their A game, but failing to advance to the super-regionals would be a major shock. If you haven’t grabbed tickets yet, good luck scrounging some up!  The entire weekend sold out in a matter of hours, and for good reason. We’re at the business end of the season, and everyone, from players to coaches to fans, has been waiting nearly 12 months for the opportunity.

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

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2016 Softball Postseason Primer


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