UM's '05 champs have powerful connection with '15 contenders

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Jessica Merchant holds the national championship trophy after Michigan defeated UCLA in 2005.

Oklahoma City – It takes a national champion to know if another team has the chemistry and character to also reach that height.

Michigan's softball team is playing Florida in a best-of-three championship series at the Women's College World Series. The Gators are defending national champions.

Members of Michigan's 2005 national championship softball team, including many who made long trips here to support coach Carol Hutchins and the Wolverines, believe this is a special group that has what it takes to produce a second national title.

"I was actually talking to Becky Marx, who was my catcher, and we were having this conversation (Sunday) that this team is so much better than we were," said Jennie Ritter, Michigan's outstanding pitcher who helped the 2005 team become the first team east of the Mississippi River to win a softball national title. "They just know how to win."

Samantha Findlay, who hit the championship-winning home run in the 10th inning to beat UCLA in 2005, drove 12 hours from Chicago on Monday with her husband, Louis, and son, Logan (named for the Wolverine comic book character), to be there for the current team.

"I want to show my support as a softball alumni, and it's an honor to watch this team play for a national title," Findlay said. "I'm grateful for being a Wolverine and us Wolverines stick together well after our four years of playing. (We) wouldn't miss it."

Jessica Merchant, a senior shortstop and captain on the 2005 team and now an assistant softball coach at Minnesota, flew in Monday to support the Wolverines, and she will make the 11-hour drive back to Minneapolis to get there in time for some recruiting business. She plans to wear a Michigan shirt and a Minnesota hat, because while she is a Wolverine, she is devoted, she said, to her current players.

Merchant sees a key similarity between the two Michigan teams, 10 years apart.

"They have this confidence about them, like we had," Merchant said. "LSU scored first (in Sunday's game) and it was like, 'We don't care.' They gave up runs to UCLA, and it doesn't faze them."

Energy and chemistry

Findlay said it's difficult to compare teams because they all have unique bonds, and no two teams are ever the same. But it's been easy to sit back and enjoy what she has seen from a team that entered the championship round on a 28-game winning streak.

"This group is phenomenal – man, are they fun to watch, from the energy to the team chemistry," Findlay said. "It's clear they trust their coaches, and more importantly they trust each other, which is why I believe they are so great. No one has worked harder than this group in all aspects, and they deserve to be playing for the title. They earned it; now they can win it. This group is something special to watch, and I'm proud of the way they represent Michigan and Michigan softball."

Michigan players crowd around home plate to greet Samantha Findlay after her national championship-clinching homer in the 10th inning against UCLA.

Angie Danis, a freshman on the 2005 team, organized a letter-writing campaign from her team to the current one. The players from 2005 wrote letters to the players wearing their jersey numbers today. Michigan's current players received the letters the day of their first World Series game last Thursday and posted them in their dugout before a 5-0 shutout win over Alabama. The players later said they were moved by the letters.

"It was amazing to read the letters after each of us wrote them," Findlay said. "In a way, it was ironic to see how each teammate's characteristics and passion came pouring out in their messages to the current players."

Merchant said the email chain that began when Danis launched the campaign has continued, and they're all reconnecting through the current team's success.

"The alums have really grabbed onto Team 38," Merchant said, referring to the 38th team in Michigan softball history. "It was just exciting to be a small part of this team's journey. If we could help in any way, give them confidence or relieve pressure. It's a huge stage, and they haven't been this far. We told them to enjoy the moment, play Michigan softball, and no matter what happens, we are so incredibly proud."

For the members of the national championship team, the letters were not meant to be about them, and they chose this time to share their support because they believe this is a team capable of winning it all, even against a formidable Florida squad.

"We've been there and done that, and we wanted to give them a vote of confidence and tell them, 'We've got your back." said Ritter, fastpitch business manager for Louisville Slugger. "It wasn't about us telling them how great we were, it was about, 'We believe in you, you can do this.' This is about Team 38, not Team 28."

'Incredible all year'

And it's not about making comparisons, although that's a natural inclination.

"It's so hard to say," Merchant said. "Our team is so special. In that year we were the best team, but that doesn't mean we're better than this team or they're better than us. If they come together and win it all, they may be the greatest of all-time in Michigan history."

Jennie Ritter pitches against Texas in a Women's College World Series game in 2005.

The 2005 team wants another national championship not only for the program but for Hutchins and her staff that includes Bonnie Tholl, who has been there 22 seasons, and Jennifer Brundage, who has been there 17. Merchant said Hutchins has an uncanny ability to bring in recruits -- from California, New York, Georgia, etc. -- and get them to believe in Michigan.

"People really buy into it," Merchant said. "She's a role model, she's a leader, and I'm lucky enough to call her a friend now."

Hutchins now has 1,408 wins at Michigan and 1,431 overall.

"It would mean the world," Ritter said of Hutchins winning another title. "It would be validation she's one of the best, if not the best – and I'm biased – coach ever. We love this coaching staff."

Regardless of the outcome, the 2005 team members have enjoyed the ride with this team, 10 years later.

"Win or lose they've been incredible all year," Ritter said. "They have our support and have exemplified what Michigan softball is. We're in their corner. They have something to prove with the SEC so strong and as the only Big Ten school to be here. Win or lose, they've shown they're as good if not better than most SEC teams."

Ritter to Betsa

This is Jennie Ritter's letter to current Michigan pitcher Megan Betsa:

Megan,

I am thrilled to have the opportunity to pass along a note of good luck to you! I wasn't quite sure what I was going to write at first. At this time of year, you've seen it all, you've done it all, and you're more than ready to step on this stage and be successful. I thought I'd pass along a few things that helped me get through those trying mental moments, because this is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical challenge. Here are the things that I had to remind myself a couple of times:

You can't do it on your own. The good news is that you don't have to. It's easy to want to feel as if you should carry the burden, but your team has supported you the entire season. Don't change just because the stakes may feel higher. It's still 43 feet to the plate and your stuff still moves as good as it ever has!

Trust. Trust your teammates. Trust your coaches. Most importantly, trust yourself. You have gotten here on what you know and by working and preparing for this moment. Trust your preparation. What you have done to prepare is enough to get you through this moment.

Respond. While you always set a goal to be perfect in the circle, more times than not, you're going to run into adversity. Errors, home runs, big hits — it's part of the game. You've heard it from Hutch before, but don't forget it — it's what you do AFTER the adversity that counts. Remind yourself of that. Forget the big hits. Pick your teammates up when they make an error by doing what you do best — get outs. Be the one your team can lean on in these situations.

No matter how tired you are, you have more in you. You will feel tired. Ignore it. Your mind will quit before your body will. Don't let it. There is ALWAYS more in you. Fight it. You will not be given more than you can handle, and you can handle more than you think.

Don't be afraid to give up the good to go for the great. Leave it all on the field. No limits. No let ups!

No matter what happens, you will always have Team #38. You are a unit that can only be summarized in one word: SPECIAL. Fight for another day with this team every time you step on the field.

You also have the support of Teams 1 through 37, and that family will always be there for you to lean on! We are all so proud to be a part of Michigan Softball and what #Team38 exemplifies this year. You are strong, confident, and have a chip on your shoulder that could make even the strongest teams intimidated. That's Michigan Softball. That's why we believe in you!

Good Luck, and Forever GO BLUE!

Jennie Ritter

(On Behalf of Team #28)