Wolverine softball scores big with UM fans

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

There is a photograph in Bonnie Tholl's office that serves as a reminder of her days as a Michigan softball player.

It was 1989, the dugout was more dug out than enclosed as they are these days, and there were a handful of fans in the stands.

"I can name every single person in that picture because they were all family and friends," Tholl said.

Times have changed for Michigan softball since those days.

Now an associate head coach, Tholl's office is in the Donald R. Shepherd Softball Center, dedicated last year, which sits next to the pristine stadium that's part of the Wilpon Complex. The three-floor center houses locker room, offices, a museum and state-of-the-art training facilities.

On the field, the Wolverines have won 18 Big Ten titles, reached 10 Women's College World Series, and was the first team east of the Mississippi to win a national title — in 2005. This season, they are ranked No. 3 nationally, leading the country in home runs (112) and are second in scoring (8.3 runs per game) and ERA (1.50).

And the handful of fans? Now, Michigan has a rabid fan base, selling out Friday's Game 2 in the Super Regionals against Georgia. (There were a limited number of outfield general admission tickets remaining for Thursday night's Game 1.) During last weekend's regionals that included Oakland, California and Pittsburgh, the average attendance was 2,100 (capacity of 2,800).

"We have people walking around town and the state with Michigan softball stuff on," Tholl said. "It's a good thing I can say this, but I don't know who all these people are. It means our program has grown. It's mind-boggling."

Ranked sixth in attendance

Michigan athletics are known primarily for football and men's basketball.

Football, in particular, is the main revenue-producer. And with the exception of men's hockey, the rest of the sports — like softball — are considered non-revenue.

Based on the reporting year that ended June 2014, Michigan's operating budget for football was $6.55 million, while men's basketball came in at $1.56 million, but both are revenue-makers. The operating expenses for softball were $473,982, with the revenue minimal.

But that doesn't matter to its fans.

Michigan ranked sixth nationally in attendance, according to NCAA records, for the 2013 season. It was the only program from a cold-weather state in the top 10.

The Wolverines also are a television draw — they played at prime time (9 p.m.) on Thursday, with Game 2 tonight on ESPNU and Game 3, if necessary, on ESPN. The 2005 championship game against UCLA drew 2.24 million average viewers, second in ESPN history for softball (Tennessee-Arizona in 2007 is No. 1 at 2.33 million).

"The atmosphere is real, that's what I like about it," said Stuart Berlow, 38, a Michigan alum living in the Washington, D.C.-area who flew in for last weekend's regionals and is back for the Super Regionals. "You watch them in the dugout, the fun they're having, and you can tell they love this. They love playing for Michigan. ... It's not that manufactured wow experience you get at the Big House. There's not something on the scoreboard telling you to make some noise. It's genuine."

Griffin Hickman, also a Michigan alum, attends about two-thirds of the home games with his season ticket-holding parents, Laurie and Gerald, who have been active in the sport for years. If Michigan advances to the World Series, Hickman plans to make the trip to Oklahoma City.

"It's a sport my family (which includes two sisters) has always enjoyed being part of," Griffin Hickman said. "It's very convenient the team is a perennial 50-game winner, is always in Super Regionals and always bidding for the College World Series.

"You don't find many casual fans (of the softball program). They're all the way in."

The Bo of women's coaches

The appeal of Michigan softball certainly is its consistent success, and that starts with Carol Hutchins, a Michigan State alum who arrived in Ann Arbor 31 years ago and had to do everything, including cutting the grass.

"Hutch is a personality, but I don't think she sets out to be," Tholl said. "She's authentic, and when you're authentic it comes through not only in the kids we recruit and coach, but with our fan base. What comes out of Hutch's mouth, you know her emotions are real, and people are drawn to that.

"I think truly for a long time among the Michigan fan base she's been to referred to as the Bo of the women's coaches. She's engaging and creates a trust. People trusted (legendary Michigan football coach) Bo (Schembechler) for his integrity and discipline. You knew what to expect from Bo and the same goes for Hutch. She's her own style."

Hutchins launched the women's softball academy six years ago to raise money for cancer research at UM Hospital. It is wildly popular for her players and their fans, and has raised more than $650,000. The academy is another way the program has reached out to its fan base.

"Hutch is the most down-to-earth coach, committed to success but very humble," Hickman said. "She's somebody who remembers your name and asks how you're doing."

A few years ago during the academy, Hickman injured his ankle sliding into home plate.

"She offered me ice and the services of the trainer," he said. "I won't forget that."

Hutch's personality and her indefatigable promotion of the program has generated considerable interest in Michigan softball, but winning seasons as long as she's been coach, a strong postseason presence and being in reach of a national title also have been attractive.

"I know the crowds are not like football and basketball, but they still draw 2,000 and have prime-time games," Hickman said. "Michigan softball has a tremendous following, and I'm happy to be part of that."



NCAA Super Regionals

Michigan vs. Georgia

Site: Alumni Field, Ann Arbor

Tonight: Game 2 of the best-of-three series, with Game 3 if necessary

First pitch: 6 p.m. (Game 2) and 9 p.m. (Game 3)

TV: ESPNU (Game 2) and ESPN2 (Game 3)

Records: No. 3 Michigan 54-6, No. 14 Georgia 44-15