Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins is a self-described optimist and doesn’t have to look far to find a situation that closely resembles what she believes her team is going through.
The Wolverines are 19-7-1 and ranked No. 19 with five of those seven losses against ranked opponents, including a 5-5 tie with No. 1 Florida State last month. Michigan is home this week and kicked things off with a 7-1 victory over Bowling Green on Tuesday and an 8-2 win over Eastern Michigan on Wednesday. The Wolverines open the Big Ten with three games against Penn State this weekend.
“I believe we can get this going,” said Hutchins, the all-time winningest coach who earned her 1,500th victory last Sunday. “I think we’re a little like the men’s basketball team — I think a few months ago people thought they were underachievers (and now the team is in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16). It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish. We’re going to find a way. We’ve been got caught up in expectations being in this program, but we’re getting a little better.”
After losing to then-No. 19 Kentucky on March 12, Hutchins met with her leadership group, the core group of players she identifies as the leaders of the team and the ones she said influence the group. She spoke to them about extra effort, like coming in for additional batting practice.
“It was the most productive team meeting we’ve had in years,” she said. “I’ve seen a big difference. We’re on a better path right now and we’ve had the most productive week of the year. We had a real heart to heart. I’ve seen a drastic improvement.”
Michigan since that meeting swept a three-game series with Kent State and now continues a stretch with seven of the next eight at home.
Expectations are always high for Michigan, coming off back-to-back World Series appearances. The Wolverines were the national champion runner-up in 2015. But player of the year Sierra Romero graduated after last season, as did Sierra Lawrence, and while some might point to their absences as the reason why the Wolverines have struggled at times this season, Hutchins doesn’t buy it.
“How dare anyone in my program think the Sierras are the only reason we were good the last two years,” she said. “We won the national championship (in 2005) before the Sierras. We’ve been Top 20 for 22 years with or without the Sierras. I told them, ‘This is about you. What is your legacy at Michigan?’ If that’s what people say, then that’s what the stupid people say. The message is — you can do this. What are you going to achieve? You have to earn it. You have to hit under pressure.
“We’ve had a bit of playing with the weight of expectations on us. There are things we haven’t embraced as well as we can. You always lose players to graduation. You need incoming kids to contribute, you need players to step up. You need to contribute batting average and ERA, and we have been really inconsistent in doing our parts.”
Hutchins believes things are turning around, but it certainly has been tough for her to see some of the problems her team has had early. She said the players who have underachieved haven’t done so because of ability but because of overthinking or as she says, “that’s from the neck up.” To that end, during batting practices, Hutchins sometimes tries to engage whoever is batting to keep talking to take her mind of the mechanics as she’s trying to hit.
“Watching them take poor swings in a game is really hard to watch,” Hutchins said. “I know they are not playing up to their caliber and that’s what my job is, to get the most out of them. My job is to get them to overachieve. We’ve underachieved. But we’re playing with all the best teams. What’s the problem here? What’s the difference? Who’s going to take us over the edge and put us on their back and carry us?”
Michigan’s schedule in April is not friendly with all but one weekend series on the road in the Big Ten.
“It’s brutal,” Hutchins said. “Three weekends in a row we’re gone.”
With the Big Ten season about to begin, and Michigan starting to see improvement, Hutchins is encouraged.
“I think we’re right there,” she said. “If you’re a Michigan softball player, expectation is a World Series. And that may be their (the team’s) expectation but they need to do things better. Our standards are not being met but we’re expecting better results.”
Tony Paul previews state teams
Coach: Carol Hutchins
Big Ten opener: vs. Penn State, Friday-Sunday
Outlook: It’s been a surprisingly iffy start for the Wolverines, who are down to 19th in the national rankings after some losses to some tough nonleague opponents. ... Senior LHP Megan Betsa has 170 strikeouts in 94.1 innings.
Coach: Jacquie Joseph
Big Ten opener: at Purdue, Friday-Sunday
Outlook: The Spartans are looking for their first winning season since 2007. ... Junior Lea Foerster, 14th in the Big Ten in hitting a year ago, is batting .458 with eight homers and 27 RBIs.
Coach: John Conway
Horizon opener: at Wright State, Friday-Saturday
Outlook: It’s been a struggle in softball for the Titans, who haven’t had a winning season since 1993 and have lost at least 39 games each of the past five seasons. ... Sophomore Courtney Gilbert is batting .328.
Coach: Connie Miner
Horizon opener: at Youngstown State, Friday-Saturday
Outlook: The Golden Grizzlies started strong, with four wins in five games in a season-opening tournament, but are limping into conference play as losers of six in a row. ... Senior SP Erin Kownacki has a 1.64 ERA in nine games.
Coach: Melissa Gentile
MAC opener: at Kent State, Friday-Saturday
Outlook: At .500 through 22 games, it was actually Eastern’s best start in six seasons after sweeping two games over the weekend in Macon, Ga. ... Senior Michelle Kriegshauser is batting .395 with five homers and 20 RBIs.
Coach: Kathy Leitke
MAC opener: vs. Miami (Ohio), Friday-Sunday
Outlook: The Broncos definitely haven’t shied away from some tough scheduling, even if it led to more losses than they’d like in the early going. ... Senior Kelsea Cichocki is batting .500 with four homers and 27 RBIs.
Coach: Margo Jonker
MAC opener: vs. Bowling Green, Friday-Saturday
Outlook: A team to watch in the MAC, led by Jonker, the coach of CMU softball since 1980. The Chippewas went 10-1 on a spring-break trip. ... Senior SP Rachael Knapp has a 1.78 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 17 games (11 starts).
Coach: Gary Bryce
GLIAC opener: at Tiffin, Saturday; at Findlay, Sunday
Outlook: In early March, Bryce, in his 36th season as head coach at Wayne State, became the all-time winningest softball coach in Division I history, his 1,216st win breaking a tie with former Bloomsburg coach Jan Hutchinson.