Comeback win puts Michigan in softball World Series
Ann Arbor — Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins didn't watch Sierra Romero make the final out to clinch the NCAA Super Regional to send the third-ranked Wolverines to the World Series.
She didn't have to.
The Wolverines, coaches and players, have talked all season about trust and belief in one another, and this was yet another example as they won their 25th consecutive game.
And it started in the first inning as they were in an unusual spot against Georgia in the second game of the NCAA Super Regional, digging a hole early and trailing by three after an inning. But the Wolverines, noted for their depth and strength, timely pitching even with two changes, came from behind to defeat the Bulldogs, 7-6, before a season-high crowd of 2,582 on Friday at Alumni Field to advance to the College World Series next week in Oklahoma City.
It will be the Wolverines' 11th World Series appearance, all under Hutchins. The Wolverines, who lead the nation in home runs with 115, including two Friday by Kelsey Susalla and Haylie Wagner, last won a national championship in 2005.
Hutchins, during the post-game news conference, said she wanted to leave as soon as possible because she felt she might cry.
Why tears at this stage?
"I know how hard it is to get there because I've been here 31 years, and 11 appearances is really, most people think pretty good, but I've seen a lot of teams not make it all the way," Hutchins said. "To finish and advance, I know what it takes, and this team had what it takes, and they showed it today."
Michigan trailed 3-0 after the first inning that involved a pitching change from Megan Betsa, a 30-game winner who has been so strong this postseason, to Wagner. Betsa finished the game, but Wagner, who helped herself with that home run and a flip to catcher Lauren Sweet to stop a late run, had a strong outing. She had six strikeouts, including three of Georgia's Kaylee Puailoa.
"There's a lot of emotions that went through me," said Wagner, a senior. "I was so excited and so proud of this team, because in the end, we fought together and we played together and we're a team and we're a family. It took every single one of us.
"The emotions are indescribable, and there's nothing that will ever top this."
Hutchins said while talent clearly is key at this time of year, the postseason is more about the intangibles the Wolverines had on display in the second game of the sweep against the Bulldogs.
"I thought my kids were fantastic," Hutchins said. "They've been fantastic all year. I told them don't be proud because you won, be proud of what you've worked so hard to accomplish. We've been a great team. That Georgia team, they are fighters, they are scrappy. That's a tough team to play, a tough team to beat, a lot of tough outs in their lineup. We got behind early, we didn't lose our cool. Our heart was fantastic, and at this time of year talent isn't the most important thing. Heart and soul is the most important thing."
The Wolverines tied the game after runs in the second and third inning, and Wagner broke the tie with her solo home run in the fourth. She said her coaches all gave her the same advice.
"(They) said, see the back of the ball, hit the back of the ball," Wagner said. "I don't remember swinging, I just saw the ball and hit it, and there it went."
The Wolverines never trailed after that, but had to hold off a late charge by the Bulldogs with two outs in the bottom of the seventh. With Michigan leading, 7-4, Anna Swafford hit a two-run home run to pull Georgia within a run.
After Wagner then allowed a single, Betsa returned. Betsa was behind in the count early to Niaja Griffin but got her to fly out to Sierra Romero to end the game.
Betsa, who started the first game of the Super Regional and had 10 strikeouts against Georgia in the win, was hit hard in the first inning. She allowed two home runs, and Michigan trailed 3-0 when Wagner came in to pitch. The Bulldogs had two outs and runners at first and second with Wagner pitching."
Susalla continued her strong postseason showing with a solo home run to right field to lead off the second inning and pull the Wolverines to 3-1.
UM tied the game, 3-3, in the third when Romero singled to right and scored Abby Ramirez. Kelly Christner's deep fly to right was enough to score Sierra Lawrence.
Michigan took the lead in the fourth inning, 4-3, when Wagner decided to give herself some room to work as a pitcher. Wagner hit a solo homer to left, her second of the season, and she celebrated wildly as she rounded the bases.
Susalla's single scored Romero, making it 5-3 and Lauren Sweet built a 6-3 lead when her single to right scored Susalla.
Wagner and the Wolverines got out of a tough sixth inning with minimal damage, giving up a run but saving another. Wagner fielded Paige Wilson's grounder and flipped to catcher Sweet, who made a run-saving tag at the plate.
"That's what we practice, we do every day in practice, those little swinging bunts." Wagner said. "I saw her out of the corner of my eye she was going home, and I knew I had to get it to Lauren and keep it low, and I knew she was going to do the rest."
Wagner finished the inning with her third strikeout of the night of Puailoa. Two runners were stranded.
At the top of the seventh, Christner got behind the count, 0-2, but hung in and was walked. Two batters later, she scored to expand Michigan's lead, 7-4, on a single by Sweet.
Hutchins will be leading the Wolverines to their 11th World Series appearance, and it has been 10 years since winning a national title. But she won't compare teams, as each is unique.
"Team 38 is writing its own destiny, and this is a good team, and good teams don't always win," Hutchins said. "It's not just talent. You have to have a good amount of talent but you've got to have, in a game like that, you've got to have guts, you've got to have nerve, and you've got to believe, and you've got to believe in your teammates, and you've got to believe in your coaches and you've got to believe in yourself. Our talent's great, but our belief is fantastic."
Michigan has dominated this season, and as the Wolverines head into the World Series, Hutchins liked the fact they had to work from behind to gut out the victory.
"I couldn't be prouder," she said. "During the season when we had so many run rules and blowouts, you get concerned when it gets to this time of year -- how are we going to play when the games get tight? I'm very pleased with what we did with that. We stayed in our moment, we were really one-pitch focused. Being able to play in tight games, that's called postseason."
And as the Wolverines prepare to make a charge at the national championship, Betsa said she feels confident in the team, not only because of their top-to-bottom depth, but their faith in one another.
"I believe we can win this whole thing," Betsa said. "We're a great team. The belief we have in each other is indescribable."