Ann Arbor — No coach really wants to discuss the future of the program when the current team is still in the postseason running.
But now might be a good time to point out that the Michigan softball team’s seven-member sophomore class already has made strong contributions and can only gain valued experience from the No. 20 Wolverines’ 25th appearance in the NCAA Tournament. They open tournament play Friday night against Fresno State in Seattle.
The Wolverines will try to rebound from a disappointing showing in last weekend’s Big Ten Tournament they hosted. Michigan, after a first-round bye, lost in a quarterfinal to Michigan State. This is only the fifth time Michigan has had to travel for an NCAA regional.
Michigan did make a final surge toward the end of the regular season, and a big part of that was the three sophomore starters. In the last 10 games, seven players are batting .400 or better, including sophomore second baseman Faith Canfield at .576 — she’s also second on the team with a .394 batting average this season — and outfielder Natalie Peters is at .476. Catcher Katie Alexander, also a sophomore, has had three home runs during that stretch.
“We’ve got a key group of sophomores who are contributing to our success and contributing every day,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said this week. “They’re going to be the experience of the future. So it is certainly valuable experience (from the postseason).
“I want to convince Katie Alexander, she’s good enough right now. She doesn’t need to get more experience to lead us next year. She’s good enough right now. She just needs to believe it. Faith has been outstanding all year. Natalie has really been very good for us, and I always think she can do more.”
The sophomores know that the experience they’re gaining this year is going to be significant going forward after this four-member senior class moves on.
“It’s definitely exciting we were all able to come in and step into the roles we were given,” Canfield said. “It’s not just us three. That’s a really cool thing. It’s nice to have experience young. Going into next year, it’s really going to help us.”
Alexander said it was a smooth transition for the sophomores moving into the starting lineup.
“We were talking about how a lot of us felt we did have to step up this year, and I think a lot of us embraced that,” she said. “And it’s fun. It’s fun being out there and being part of everything. I feel this experience and this ability to take what the seniors have taught us and see their leadership will definitely carry on to next year and hopefully we’ll be better than ever for it.”
Canfield said the entire class already has embraced the concept of being leaders. By moving on from their freshman year, she said, it was like they left behind all of the pressures of learning how to be part of the program.
They all agreed that being part of a big class has made all of this easier. Canfield, Alexander, Peters and Mackenzie Nemitz live together, and they always know the rest of the sophomores, Leah Crockett, Alex Sobczak and Courtney Richardson, are part of their large support group.
The three knew there would be a strong chance they’d play this year. Canfield, though, had to replace Player of the Year Sierra Romero.
“Coming in I knew I was going to have to try and take over for Sierra Romero. I mean, no one can really do that,” Canfield said. “In the beginning I took it really hard, actually. Honestly, just getting out there to play threw everything out the window.”
Alexander figured there would be some personnel shifting and that she and good friend Sobczak would push each other for the job.
“I came into the program as a bullpen catcher, and there I really realized I have to embrace my role,” Alexander said. “I got put in a couple times last year in tough situations. This year I was put back in that role and started playing more and more. I really realized you’re playing for Michigan, but these are my best friends. It’s not any different when we’re at practice. I think of it like that. Having the support of everyone has helped and just really doing what I can to help Michigan win.”
With Sierra Lawrence also gone from last year, Peters knew there would be a chance for her to play this year.
“I was working toward that the whole time,” Peters said. “I felt honored to be out there with (senior) Kelly (Christner), just feeding off her, learning from her. I think that the knowledge she’s given me just watching her play and how aggressive she is, how she communicates, I think that will really help next year and hopefully I will be able to take that into the outfield again and carry it on.”
The NCAA Tournament is not a new experience for the sophomores, who were part of the team that made it to the World Series last year.
“We went on that run last year, and we’ve seen it and we’ve been in the dugout,” Canfield said. “Whether you’re in the dugout or playing on the field, you’re in it every single pitch, because that’s how we do it at Michigan. So we’ve seen struggle, and we’ve seen accomplishments when we’re playing really good teams.”
Peters said Hutchins has prepared the team with her strong early scheduling.
“Our schedule in general, preseason it’s all so tough, that although it’s a so-called bigger stage now, it’s the same people we’re playing,” Peters said.
The sophomores have no concerns about nerves heading into the tournament because they’ve been so tested throughout the year and have that background from last year’s tourney run.
“It definitely felt like a postseason experience at the beginning when we’d go to Palm Springs and places like that,” Alexander said. “That knowledge and understanding of how things work in that environment and the electricity that you feel in a regional or a super regional and the World Series, that’s something we’re able to understand when you’re actually playing in this environment. That experience last year only helps.”
And it will only help them as they progress in their Michigan careers.
(TV coverage to be determined for Saturday and Sunday games.)
Game 1: No. 2 Michigan (41-11-1) vs. No. 3 Fresno State (34-21), 9 (ESPN2)
Game 2: No. 1 Washington (43-11) vs. No. 4 Montana (35-22), 11:30 (ESPN3)
Game 3:Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 5
Game 4:Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 7:30
Game 5:Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 winner, 10
Game 6: Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 7.
Game 7 (if necessary): Game 6 winner vs. Game 6 loser, 10:30