Ann Arbor -- In sports, winning and having fun seem like the chicken and the egg.
Do teams have fun because they're winning, or do fun environments help teams win?
In the Michigan softball program, guided for 31 years by head coach Carol Hutchins, there are no such metaphysical puzzles. The Wolverines, 56-6, are having plenty of fun as they carry a 25-game winning streak into their Women's College World Series opener Thursday against Alabama. But make no mistake: Having fun – or having "team chemistry," as Hutchins often describes it, is an acquired habit, developed in her players from the time they arrive on Michigan's campus, generally as self-centered freshmen.
In Hutchins' world, having fun always comes first, and winning is a natural byproduct.
"I tell them team chemistry isn't just liking each other and taking selfies. Team chemistry helps you win games," Hutchins said Monday in a telephone interview with The Detroit News. "Team chemistry is not only that they take care of each other, but they push each other. They say, 'Hey, get your head up,' and, 'Hey, get back on board and get focused.' They care about the program."
That chemistry was overflowing Friday night at Alumni Field in Ann Arbor, where Michigan beat Georgia 7-6 to win a Super Regional and earn the program's 11th World Series bid – all of them coming under Hutchins.
Michigan home games at Alumni Field -- complete with pep bands and packed houses -- are often like summertime backyard parties, where the fun is spontaneous, genuine and organic. On Friday, first baseman Tera Blanco was on the field between innings, leading fans in the wave. Later, with Michigan hanging on to a one-run lead in the seventh inning, center fielder Sierra Lawrence was dancing to the music that played over the stadium speakers as Hutchins made a visit to the pitcher's circle.
"The music comes on and that's how they stay loose, and we let them do it as long as they don't get out of control or do any of that dirty dancing," Hutchins said. "It's fun to be on the field and it's fun for the players to be with their teammates. I feel like that's been a trademark of Michigan softball. People who come to our games say, 'I love to watch you play -- the kids have so much fun.' We smile a lot and we win a lot. And I believe we win because we have fun."
'Whole new level'
While these are undeniably good times for Michigan softball, getting the program to an elite level and keeping it there requires a lot of heavy lifting by Hutchins, her assistants, and their players.
"Hutch" recruits topflight talent from all over the United States – California, Georgia, New York, Michigan. But she says all of her players arrive in Ann Arbor with self-imposed "limits" on what they think they can accomplish.
"They don't think they can lift the kind of weights that they can, they don't think they can do the things we make them do," Hutchins said. "They learn to stretch themselves. They learn to get out of their comfort zone, because if you're comfortable you're not getting better.
"They have to learn some things at a whole new level, because they have to grow up quickly, and they have to assimilate into the values of the program. We push them to the limits that they set themselves, and then we push them to higher levels."
Hutchins is frequently compared to another Michigan coaching legend, Bo Schembechler. And while the comparison seems legitimate, Michigan senior catcher Lauren Sweet thought of Hutchins when the Wolverines had a movie night recently and watched "Miracle," about the late Herb Brooks and the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.
Hutchins' mission -- not unlike Brooks' -- is to purge selfishness from players so they function as a single, effective unit. That can be a painful transition.
"I knew Hutch was intimidating, I knew she was fierce and intense – just from watching that on TV," said Michigan's No. 1 pitcher, Megan Betsa, a sophomore from McDonough, Georgia. "I wasn't expecting that to change. I was only expecting that to get harder, more difficult. But she's tough on us because she loves us and she wants us to be successful. She wants us to leave here as great Michigan women."
Michigan pitcher Haylie Wagner of Orange, California, admits to some "ups and downs" with Hutchins over the last four years. But as a soon-to-be-departing senior, Wagner now understands the wisdom of her coach's tough love.
"I know in the end, outside of softball, she wants me to be the best person I can be," Wagner said. "She wants me to push myself and go beyond my limits, and she's done that in every aspect of my life. I can truly say she is the sole reason I'm leaving here a different person. She's been absolutely amazing."
The Women's College World Series can be considered one of Hutchins' "higher levels." It began in 1982 and has been dominated by teams from warm-weather states. This year's field is no different with No. 1 seed Florida, No. 2 Oregon, No. 4 Auburn, No. 5 LSU, No. 7 UCLA and No. 8 Tennessee joining No. 3 Michigan and No. 6 Alabama.
When the Wolverines won the national championship in 2005, they became the first team east of the Mississippi River to do so. At the time it was considered somewhat of a novelty in the college softball world.
Times have changed. These 2015 Wolverines have been ranked in the top five nationally nearly all season, they have two of the nation's most feared hitters in Sierra Romero and Kelly Christner, they have an impressive 1-2 pitching tandem of Betsa and Wagner, and they have a stout defense led by Sweet and shortstop Abby Ramirez.
Hutchins took over the Michigan program in 1985. She has never had a losing season, and her career record is 1,428-469-4. The Wolverines have made 21 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, and while this would be no small feat for any program, it is particularly so for one that spends the first 5-6 weeks of each season on the road, playing in warm-weather states in February and March.
A second national championship would be rewarding for Hutchins and her fun-loving bunch, but it would be no fluke.
"I love the game of softball and I love being on the field, but ultimately I do this because I love being the leader of these young women," Hutchins said. "And they're not here for themselves. They're here to accomplish something great together.
"Our mission is to be national champions."
It should be a fun World Series.
WOMEN'S COLLEGE WORLD SERIES
At ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, Oklahoma City
Game 1 — Florida vs. Tennessee, noon (ESPN)
Game 2 — Auburn vs. LSU, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3 — Michigan vs. Alabama, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
Game 4 — Oregon vs. UCLA, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Game 5 — Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 7 p.m.
Game 6 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 9:30 p.m.
Game 7 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, noon
Game 8 — Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 2:30 p.m.
Game 9 — Game 5 loser vs. Game 7 winner, 7 p.m.
Game 10 — Game 6 loser vs. Game 8 winner, 9:30 p.m.
Game 11 — Game 5 winner vs. Game 9 winner, 1 p.m.
Game 12 — Game 6 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 3:30 p.m.
Game 13 — Game 5 winner vs. Game 9 loser, 7 p.m., if necessary
Game 14 — Game 6 winner vs. Game 10 loser, 9:30 p.m., if necessary
Note: If only one game is necessary, it will be played at 7 p.m.
Monday, June 1 — 8 p.m.
Tuesday, June 2 — 8 p.m.
Wednesday, June 3 — 8 p.m., if necessary