Ann Arbor — It took Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins an hour and a half to make her way through the well-wishers and autograph-seekers and head home on Sunday after the Wolverines staged a remarkable comeback in the top of the seventh to win the Super Regional and advance to the Women’s College World Series.
This is Michigan’s 12th World Series appearance and second consecutive. The Wolverines, ranked second, were the national champion runners-up last season and head to Oklahoma City to face LSU on Thursday night in the first round.
“Somebody who watched me yesterday on TV said you looked as excited like it was the first time you were ever going,” Hutchins said Monday. “Every year you get to go is like the first time you ever go. It is a dream come true to achieve what you work for all year and watch your kids who work so hard for it achieve it. Getting there is huge.”
But getting there is not the end goal for the Wolverines.
“We don’t talk about last year, we don’t think about last year,” sophomore catcher Aidan Falk said Monday. “The returners who have been there, we’ve got a job to do and that’s to take home a national championship. We’re there to win a national championship. We’ve been so driven this entire season and this entire year — this is what we’ve busted our butt for every day.”
Michigan, the highest-seeded team remaining in the NCAA Tournament since two-time defending champion Florida was eliminated in the Super Regional, is a supremely confident team. They know how hard it is to reach the World Series, but they’ve never doubted they would return.
“Especially after last year, I remember right after losing, Romo (Sierra Romero) said to me, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to be back,’ ” shortstop Abby Ramirez said Monday. “It takes so much to get there and so many hurdles to get over, Super Regionals being one of them, and I think we got over this hurdle, and we know what it takes to win a national championship. If we play our game and have fun and things fall together, I think it will be our best chance.”
The Wolverines talk a great deal about the value of trust, in terms of trusting each other on the field, and they also pepper all conversations with mentions of fun and making sure they have plenty of it when they play. Trust and fun are keys to how Michigan has won 51 games this season.
Nothing could have been as fun as the Wolverines’ 5-4 comeback victory over Missouri on Sunday before a raucous packed house at Alumni Field. They trailed 4-1 heading into the top of the seventh.
“I keep thinking about it and can’t stop smiling because it’s literally going to be one of the best memories in my life,” Falk said. “It’s not because we won, it’s because we won together. There was not one doubt in our minds.
“We do a drill in practice about every practice where we’re behind by a certain number of runs and it’s the top of the seventh, bottom of the seventh and you need to score X amount of runs, and 99 percent of the time we execute it and score the runs. It literally felt like a drill. Obviously it wasn’t a drill, but it’s been so ingrained that it was just like practice.”
Kelsey Susalla’s double scored two runs to tie it at 4.
“That was insane,” Susalla said Monday. “I went to dinner with my family after and I think I totally blacked out the whole last inning because I don’t even remember how many people were on base when I hit that ball. I don’t remember how the last out happened. Before the last batter came up I got chills because I could hear the fans cheering. Alumni Field was so loud, it was so awesome. For that to be my last game at Alumni Field was super memorable. It was almost a fairy tale ending.”
Fairy tale endings are the stuff of national championships, and Michigan has all the ingredients to write such a story. The Wolverines boast a strong offensive team from the top through the bottom of the order, a gutsy pitcher in Megan Betsa and Romero, one of three finalists for National Player of the Year, which will be awarded today.
“After last year, it was hard for me to be sad because I wasn’t done playing,” Romero said. “I think if I was a senior I would have been sad. It (stinks), but I was so happy with how we played, there was no way I could look back at the World Series last year and be upset with the outcome. We played really good softball and we had a lot of fun so I really didn’t have much to be upset about.
“We knew we would do whatever it took this year to get back to the World Series and I think that was really obvious in our games this weekend, especially our last one. I promise you when they had those four runs, I’m sure most people in the stands were thinking Game 3. I promise you that was not on anyone’s mind. We were finishing that game. We were winning that game no matter how long it took, we weren’t going to Game 3. We never doubt ourselves, and that’s what makes this so fun and that’s why we have so much fun. There’s no pressure.”
Senior pitcher Sara Driesenga said Sunday’s game showed what makes this team tick.
“It really revealed how much fight we have and we’re going to do whatever it takes,” she said.
Driesenga gave up a three-run home run in the sixth inning after entering the game in relief of Betsa, who returned in the seventh.
“She’s a contact pitcher and she knows people are going to hit her and sometimes someone is going to get a hold of one,” Romero said. “It was funny because the home run was hit and everyone in the infield was like, ‘All right, one more out.’ It’s not like the game’s over, we still get to hit. If anything, that lit a little fire under us and we’re like, ‘OK, they think they’re going to win. Like, no.”
Michigan endured a difficult loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten championship game the week before the NCAA Tournament. Perhaps that loss reshifted their focus heading into the NCAAs.
And perhaps the way the Wolverines came back to beat Missouri, sweep the Super Regional and earn a spot in the World Series has given them a different edge. Romero didn’t quite agree with the notion of an edge, and she and Driesenga rattled off responses to one another while considering what Sunday’s win provided.
Romero: “I think confidence.”
Driesenga “And I think even more trust than we already have in each other.”
Romero: “It’s hard to believe that we could have more trust than we already have.”
Driesenga: “Not to put it all on yourself is something that’s going to be big for us.”
The Wolverines will find out soon enough if how they won the Super Regional will help define them in the World Series.
“You’d like to think playing your guts out and the reward that goes with it gives them a great boost going into the Series,” Hutchins said. “It does a lot more for you to beat a really good team twice and to play gutsy softball — we were gutsy and scrappy — it does a lot more for you than winning a game 10-0.”
Michigan vs. LSU
What: Michigan’s opening game in Women’s College World Series
When: 9:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, Oklahoma City
Next: Winner plays Alabama-Oklahoma winner at 9:30 p.m. Friday; loser plays Alabama-Oklahoma loser at 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Women’s College World Series
All times Eastern. All games at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City. Format is double-elimination for bracket play, best-of-three for championship series.
Game 1: Florida State vs. Georgia, noon (ESPN)
Game 2: Auburn vs. UCLA, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 5: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
Game 7: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, noon (ESPN)
Game 9: Game 7 winner vs. Game 6 loser, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 11: Game 5 winner vs. Game 9 winner, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 13 (if necessary): Game 11 rematch, 7 p.m. (ESPNU)
Game 3: Alabama vs. Oklahoma, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
Game 4: Michigan vs. LSU, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Game 6: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Game 8: Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 10: Game 8 winner vs. Game 5 loser, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 12: Game 6 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 14 (if necessary): Game 12 rematch, 9:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
Bracket 1 winner vs. Bracket 2 winner
Game 1: Monday, June 6, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Tuesday, June 7, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3 (if necessary): Wednesday, June 8, 8 p.m. (ESPN)