Ann Arbor — The Michigan softball team has been about balance this season, distributing power hitting throughout the lineup while having consistently strong pitching performances.
The Wolverines also have been a determined group, playing with a chip on their shoulder — either real or imagined, whatever it takes. That approach helped them dominate the Big Ten regular season and was particularly helpful as they swept through the conference tournament.
They have their goals, including a national title, and Michigan took three steps toward that over the weekend, capped off by a dominant 10-3 victory over Pitt in an NCAA regional final Sunday afternoon at Alumni Field.
Michigan started strong with a five-run first inning and relied on tough pitching from Megan Betsa in relief to beat the Panthers and complete the three-game tournament sweep. The Wolverines will host the best-of-three NCAA Super Regional on Thursday and Friday against Georgia. The Bulldogs defeated Western Kentucky, 17-0, to advance as one of the 16 Super Regional teams.
Kelsey Susalla had a three-run home run for Michigan in the first inning, and Aidan Falk backed up a strong showing Saturday with a 3-for-4 effort against Pitt.
"You love to have the bottom of the order contribute because we're not just one through four," Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said when asked about Falk. "One of our greatest qualities is we're one through nine."
Pitt coach Holly Aprile, who guided the Panthers to their first NCAA Tournament appearance after finishing 15-29 last season, knew giving up five first-inning runs would be tough to overcome because, as Hutchins indicated, the Wolverines are incredibly deep.
"It's a pretty, pretty potent lineup to pitch to top to bottom," Aprile said. "They're really, really tough at the top. They generate power and speed, and that's tough to defend. They're very good defensively, they pitch really well. They deserve the accolades. Throughout the year they put it to many opponents.
"Michigan has had some great teams, but this is a pretty good one."
Trailing 8-0 in the bottom of the third, Pitt finally got on the board, scoring three runs in the inning. After two two-run doubles, starting pitcher Haylie Wagner was replaced by Betsa. Hutchins said it was an easy decision to make the move to Betsa, who had 10 strikeouts in each of the first two NCAA Tournament games.
"I didn't think Haylie looked as sharp as I've seen her look," Hutchins said. "I didn't think she had nearly her attack, and I didn't think her pitches were working as well. They were over the plate, they weren't moving."
After allowing the three runs, Hutchins saw some tightening
"I thought we were a little tentative," she said. "I thought we looked like we were holding our breath. Big game, all of a sudden we start worrying about the outcome. I don't want to give away at-bats, I don't want to give away pitches."
After a scoreless fourth, Michigan got rolling again in the fifth and built a 10-3 lead.
Sierra Romero, on a 3-2 count with two outs, tripled off the right-field fence, scoring one. Kelly Christner's single brought in Romero.
But it was the Wolverines explosive start that clearly gave them the edge. Susalla's home run was hit hard and directly over the right-field wall.
"When I hit it I didn't know if it was going to go out because it did come off the bat so hard," Susalla said.
Falk's double then scored a run to give the Wolverines a 5-0 lead in the first inning.
Pitt was the only team of the three over the weekend to take Michigan to seven innings, and Hutchins praised the effort of a program that many argued shouldn't have made the tournament.
And now Michigan is one of the final 16 teams heading to the Super Regional with a spot in the World Series as the prize. The celebration of this regional victory will be brief.
"I told our kids, 'Congratulations, you're one of 16 teams in the country that gets to have practice Tuesday,'" Hutchins said. "It's a great accomplishment. We're very excited about it. It's one of our goals. We'll get ready for whatever is next."
The Wolverines have made a point this season, 10 years removed from their last national championship, to get ready for what's next. But don't assume they have a checklist for the big picture. They're approaching this in the most fundamental way possible.
"I think our focus is more one game at a time, check, or one pitch at a time, check," said Sierra Lawrence, who started the game with a double from the lead-off spot to spark the big inning. "That's how we do it.
"Now that regionals are over, that's a check."
Georgia at Michigan
Best-of-three series at Alumni Field, Ann Arbor
Game 1: 9 p.m. Thursday (ESPN2)
Game 2: 6 p.m. Friday (ESPNU)
Game 3 (if necessary): 9 p.m. Friday (ESPN)
Ann Arbor Regional
Game 1: California 11, Pittsburgh 3
Game 2: Michigan 9, Oakland 1
Game 3: Michigan 9, California 1
Game 4: Pittsburgh 6, Oakland 3, Oakland eliminated
Game 5: Pittsburgh 6, California 3, California eliminated
Game 6: Michigan 10, Pittsburgh 3, Pittsburgh eliminated