Oklahoma City — Maybe it all started during the brutal, team-building, body-breaking two-day "Oklahoma City Challenge" before Thanksgiving last year. Or maybe it was on the third floor of Michigan's softball building where players pushed each other through grueling circuit training.
Here the Wolverines are, ranked third, winners of 27 straight and one victory away in the College World Series from advancing to the championship round and an opportunity to play for a national championship. Michigan is playing in its 11th World Series under coach Carol Hutchins, who last guided the program to a national championship in 2005.
Michigan, which had Saturday off, plays Sunday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium. Florida also needs one victory to advance to the championship bracket.
The Wolverines had to come from a 3-0 first-inning deficit against UCLA on Friday night, but they never wavered in the 10-4 victory. In fact, they looked as fresh in the late innings as they do in the early.
Their fitness and endurance levels have soared this season, and their preseason strength and conditioning preparation appears to be paying off at this stage. The players have heaped credit this postseason on Lew Porchiazzo, a Michigan assistant strength and conditioning coach for Olympic sports, who has worked with the softball program for the last six seasons.
"This year is the fittest I've ever been," said second baseman Sierra Romero, a finalist for National Player of the Year for the second straight season. "Oh, man, in the fall, we were full go, I mean we conditioned and lifted almost every day and had one day off. You were tired, but you knew it was going to be worth it.
"We had our facility done so we have the third floor for circuits, and circuits became my new favorite thing. They're exhausting, but they're fun to do. And everyone is on that third floor together, so we're all screaming at each other, 'One more! One more!' And just pushing each other. It's a really fun atmosphere knowing everyone in there is giving 110 percent is fun. That's where the whole family vibe comes from because everyone is pushing each other everyone is tired, but you have to push through it."
Successful teams who tout their chemistry say that almost always begins in the offseason when they're conditioning together. It is a bonding experience that can build a lasting link, because they're all going through it, all sweating, all reaching a breaking point they must push through. It was all that preseason conditioning the players say has contributed in large part to what Romero called the "family vibe" and the chemistry that has taken them to a 58-6 record and 117 home runs, which lead the country.
Hutchins is a fitness fanatic and that has been vital for Porchiazzo to do the kind of training he thinks will work best for the Wolverines.
"Part of our success is the fact is she's so invested and so bought in and that just (trickles down) to the kids," Porchiazzo said during an interview at the team's hotel. "We work really well together. She's obviously really involved in large part because she enjoys it herself, so she has a lot of thoughts and opinions, but she lets me do my job and she understands that's what I'm here for. She gives me a vision and lets me run with that vision and make adjustments or add to it or put my own flavor to it."
Michigan's new softball building, which opened before last season, houses the team's third floor gym, a much-welcomed addition for the players, and gives them the freedom to work out beyond what's structured whenever they feel motivated.
The players bought in because they know that increased weight training, increased cardio training and overall conditioning can be the difference in this stage of the postseason.
"It's just about trying to get an advantage over everyone else," sophomore 31-game winning pitcher Megan Betsa said.
Senior pitcher Haylie Wagner, who relieved Betsa in the second World Series game and held UCLA scoreless for four innings, said being physically stronger gives the Wolverines added confidence.
"We're in a lot better shape than we were last year, just physically, and mentally we have the stamina and we're able to keep going," Wagner said. "I give a lot of credit to Lew – he's been great."
They probably weren't thinking that back in November, however.
Hutchins had a light-bulb moment and came up with the "Oklahoma City Challenge." She presented Porchiazzo with the vision, and he developed a two-day plan.
The first day involved four stations, and each team of five would rotate through the eight-minute stations, that included having a duo push a 100-pound sled as far as you can, then there were the squats with a 14-pound medicine ball, partner sit ups and what he called a "fat bar," a grip exercise that is tougher than it sounds.
Twelve hours later, they were back at it for a boot-camp obstacle course that involved things like crawling through a sand pit.
"They had five days off afterwards, and they needed all those five days," Porchiazzo said, smiling. "It's something that I keep referring back to, because frankly, it inspires me. Megan (Betsa) was green at 5:30 a.m. on Day 2. She didn't look well. I said this to the team, 'Megan was green, and you picked her up. That's something you can always feed off of. You know your teammates are there for you. Even if it's not their best that day, they're going to give everything they can.'
"Whether it's a circuit where they didn't feel they could go anymore and someone picked them up or whether it's the Oklahoma City challenge where nobody felt like they could keep going, they all kept going for each other. Whatever the case is, they can fall back on their teammates, and I'd like to believe I play some sort of small role in that. In addition to the physical development it's seeing them grow and mature and getting them to be champions for life. We want to win a World Series. We want to win many of them. But we also want them to go on and be successful doctors and lawyers and teachers and nurses and whatever they want to do in their lives. It is rewarding for me, and frankly, that's why I love my job."
ESPN softball analyst Amanda Scarborough, a former standout at Texas A&M spoke this week about how Michigan worked on its endurance this year and how that is a difference-maker during a long season. The Wolverines, she said, are extremely fit.
Romero said she and her teammates feel the difference and know others have seen it.
"I've heard that from a few people that when we're on the field they say, 'You guys just physically look tough,'" Romero said. "Lew has done a great job with our lifting and our conditioning. We did a lot of abs this year, and everyone has just been on top of their game. I remember on our off days, when we had Mondays off, you go up on the third floor, and you're going to find 10 of us up there doing circuits. That's paying off."
Porchiazzo said he gets goose bumps when he hears how much the players appreciate what he has done to help build them physically and how his workouts have been a catalyst for their chemistry and their on-field success.
"As much as I got into this job because I enjoy people lifting weights and running faster and jumping higher, I got into it for the student-athlete and for the development of them as a person," he said. "They're not going to stand there in the seventh inning with two outs and two on and a full count and think about how much they squatted in November, but they can fall back on some of the challenges we've been through together.
"My role is black and white, to get them stronger and faster, but it's also to get them to prepare for the challenges they're going to face."
Women's College World Series
ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, Oklahoma City
Florida 7, Tennessee 2
LSU 6, Auburn 1
Michigan 5, Alabama 0
UCLA 7, Oregon 1
Florida 4, LSU 0
Michigan 10, UCLA 4
Auburn 4, Tennessee 2
Alabama 2, Oregon 1
LSU 5, Alabama 3
Auburn 11, UCLA 10
Florida vs. Auburn, 1 p.m. ESPN
Michigan vs. LSU, 3:30 p.m. ESPN
Florida vs. Auburn, 7 p.m., if necessary ESPNU
Michigan vs. LSU, 9:30 p.m., if necessary ESPNU
Note: If only one game is necessary, it will be played at 7 p.m.
Monday, 8 p.m. ESPN2
Tuesday, 8 p.m. ESPN
Wednesday, 8 p.m., if necessary ESPN