Ann Arbor — Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins typically enters a season with more knowns than unknowns, but as the Wolverines prepare to play their season opener, she is eager to start learning more about her team and the shape it will eventually take.
The Wolverines, ranked No. 18, open their 54-game schedule Friday in Tampa in the annual USF Wilson-Demarini Tournament. They will face UAB in the morning game on Friday and then Georgia State. On Saturday, they will face No. 2 Florida and then South Florida and wrap up the tournament with a Sunday morning game against Illinois State.
The Wolverines return 16 letter winners, including five starting position players and one starting pitcher. That includes two All-Americans, right-handed pitcher/first baseman Tera Blanco and second baseman Faith Canfield. There are five freshmen, including hot-shot left-handed pitcher Meghan Beaubien.
Gone are four-year starters Kelly Christner, Lindsay Montemarano and Abby Ramirez. Christner led Michigan in batting average and on-base percentage last season.
Hutchins is entering her 34th season at Michigan where she has a 1,527-491-5 record and is the all-time winningest coach in NCAA softball history.
“We’ve never been more wide open, probably in a long time,” Hutchins said. “Besides having new kids, because I don’t think we’re just new, we’ve got a lot of older kids who haven’t seen a lot of action. I think of Amanda Vargas and Taylor Swearingen both, and they’re seniors and it’s their time. It’s beyond their time. We need them to step up and produce for us at this point in their career. They’re capable. I’ve been very impressed with Vargas. Vargas has been on a mission all year, so I’m hopeful she’s going to break it out this year. She’s just locked in. She looks like she’s focused to play, not just to be here, to be honest.
“I don’t see us being set. Last year’s lineup wasn’t set, and that has its downsides, but I don’t know who’s our best team yet, so I can’t name it. We need people to go out and perform on the field. The downside is sometimes that gets in kids’ heads and they start worrying more about playing than they do whether they’re going to get to play than they are about playing. It’s also the separator because the competitors are who you want to put on the field. It’s going to be an interesting first few weeks, I can tell you that.”
Seniors Aidan Falk and Swearingen and Canfield, a junior, are team captains.
Canfield is the top returning hitter after batting .398 with nine home runs and 40 RBIs last season. She earned NFCA Third-Team All-America honors, while Blanco earned first-team honors.
Michigan boasts a three-member pitching staff with right-handers Blanco and freshmen Sarah Schaefer and Beaubien, the highly lauded left-hander. Beaubien was a three-time Michigan Gatorade Player of the Year out of Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central, and was ranked No. 6 overall in last year’s recruiting class by FloSoftball.
The players said there are advantages to not having a set lineup.
“I think it’s good when it’s not set, because that shows a lot of depth and there’s a lot of competition and it just shows that everybody comes in every day to work hard and earn their spot,” Falk said. “It’s really elevated everybody’s play because you don’t know. So you’re not going to take a day off because that day off could really set something off. Everybody’s been putting their best foot forward and it’s really showing.”
Canfield said practices have been more fun and have encouraged more improvement because of the open competition.
“We’re really excited,” Canfield said. “There’s a ton of opportunity, and I’m really excited to see who’s going to step up and run with it. I think there’s great potential on this team for people to do that. It’s a matter of who it’s going to be.
“It makes practice so much more fun. You’ve got to come out and be your best, because you never know who can take a spot. Everyone is coming in to be their best which makes practice 10 times better and has made us that more excited to get out there and know what the lineup’s going to be.”
A big focus this offseason has been improving offensive production, which dropped off a bit last season. During the 2016 season, with National Player of the Year Sierra Romero and Sierra Lawrence who helped lead the Wolverines to the World Series, Michigan had a team batting average of .349, 86 home runs, 430 RBIs and a .591 slugging percentage.
Last season, Michigan’s batting average was .325 and had 54 home runs, 311 RBIs and a .496 slugging percentage.
Do the Wolverines have the bats now to boost offensive production this season?
“That will be a question mark for us,” Hutchins said. “We’ve got kids that can hit. You’ve got to be able to hit and produce on a consistent, regular basis and throughout the order. That will be, I think, inconsistent for us, because we have so few seasoned hitters.
“We have Aidan, we have Tera, Faith’s had only one year of at-bats 24-7, so that could be an inconsistency for us. But with that being said, our last two weeks of practice, we have been swinging well and we have worked hard to improve in that area of being fearless. Their biggest thing is they become fearful. We’re getting them to swing fearlessly. I anticipate we’ll have some ups and downs. We’ll need to have some good pitching. We’ll need to hold the opponents down.”
Canfield said the players’ approach now is that they’re on the attack every at-bat.
“Being prepared for every pitch, thinking we’re swinging every pitch and having that mentality we can always stop ourselves,” she said. “You can’t always start yourself, but as long as you’re ready to swing at every pitch, you can always stop it. That’s really helped. They’ve been tracking our velocity and how hard we’re hitting balls, so that mentality is you’re going up to crush the ball.”
Falk said improved hitting is all about preparation but not overthinking. She said they have seen more live pitching in the offseason and that has benefitted everyone.
“We’re just trying to hit the ball hard and I think we have a lot of girls on this team who can hit the ball very hard,” Falk said.
As a co-captain, Falk said she already has noticed that everyone is willing to speak up when they detect something that could be an issue. That’s the accountability she, Swearingen and Canfield are encouraging.
She also likes the way they’re already coming together as the long season is about to begin.
“It feels good,” Falk said. “The chemistry is definitely there. This team is more present-based. We’re not thinking about four months away. We’re thinking about, ‘We have one game, this is our game, this is what we’ve got to do.’ That’s the way we’ve been thinking in practice. We’ve been trying to break big things into little things.”