Ann Arbor — It seems a rarity, that special player who can come in her freshman season and not only fulfill promise that season but for her entire career. Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins saw it once before in Sierra Romero.
She’s witnessing it again in freshman pitcher Meghan Beaubien.
Beaubien on Wednesday was named the Big Ten’s Pitcher of the Year and Freshman of the Year. She was 16-1 in the Big Ten with a 0.93 ERA, six shutouts, 117 strikeouts and a .123 opponents’ batting average in conference games.
She has helped lead the Wolverines (43-10) to the top seed in the Big Ten tournament that opens Thursday. Michigan, ranked No. 12 by ESPN and No. 16 by USA Today, has a first-round bye and will play the winner of Nebraska-Michigan State on Friday.
For the season, Beaubien is 32-3 with a 0.90 ERA. She leads the nation in victories and has struck out 245 in 195.1 innings. She is among 10 finalists for the USA Softball National Player of the Year, an award Romero won her final season at Michigan. Beaubien is one of three freshmen to be included among the finalists.
Hutchins, named the Big Ten Coach of the Year, said she saw Beaubien “a little bit” affected early in the season by some of the praise, but she snapped out of that quickly.
“She’s a smart kid and I think she’s pretty driven,” Hutchins said Wednesday. “She’s as driven as a freshman as I’ve had since Romo.
“Everybody talked about Romo and how special she was. Well, she’s Romo special. Although I never predict how high they’ll go, she has been all that and really more.”
Beaubien, upon hearing the Romero comparison, delivered a one-word response.
“Wow,” she said of being mentioned in that rarefied air with the 2016 National Player of the Year.
Not that she’s surprised by her success this season. Hardly. Beaubien is driven and confident.
“I didn’t come in saying, ‘OK, I’m the next big thing, blah, blah, blah,’” she said. “I try to stay grounded in that sense. But I really did believe I could come in and perform well for this team. I had that confidence in myself.”
Hutchins said she knew Beaubien would accomplish what she’s done as a freshman.
“She has exceeded anybody’s expectations, but I know for a fact when she came here, she came here to be great,” Hutchins said. “She came here to be a part of something great. She didn’t come in her freshman year to try to figure it out. She knew coming in that she was going to pitch and it was her intention to pitch well. She’s definitely self-fulfilling. She’s been awesome. She’s carried us on her shoulders many a game and I expect you’ll see the ball in her hands quite a bit (in the Big Ten Tournament).
“I expected and it was our need for her to come and be an ace, but I expected she could do that to be honest. I never go into a season counting what games I think we should win and how many games we should win. We know we have our work cut out for us every year. With that being said, I am not really surprised that we’re at where we’re at with Meghan and what Meghan has done for Michigan. I’ll tell you, she’s one driven athlete. She’s already one of the most driven kids I’ve ever met.”
Her 32 victories this season set a regular-season program record. And if Michigan needs her to pitch every game during the tournament, that will be her job.
Beaubien is extremely fit and likes the workload.
“She’s as durable a kid as I’ve had,” Hutchins said. “She’s going to be pitching to get us to the finals. That’s the goal. We’ll go if she goes.”
Beaubien said her durability comes from strenuous offseason conditioning and from the season.
“The more you pitch, you build up stamina,” she said. “I think a big part of it is conditioning and being in good physical shape.”
Catcher Katie Alexander has enjoyed working with Beaubien this season. She said when Beaubien trusts her spin and speed, something special happens.
“No one can touch her and I love that,” Alexander said. “We feed off each other.”
Alexander has enjoyed watching the freshman talent from her vantage point.
“It’s very cool to see from that young age how good you can be,” she said.
Hutchins anticipated the obvious, that the awards would start rolling in for Beaubien. So they sat together on the bench Tuesday and talked about how to manage success and honors.
The longtime coach knew exactly which button to push.
“I said, ‘You have some honors, you’ll have trophies but I said as long as you can keep in mind you don’t have that trophy,'” Hutchins said, pointing toward the national champions trophy. “That will keep you going because every batter you face from now on, they’re in the way of you and another trophy.”
Beaubien by the numbers
■ Games/started: 41/30
■ Record: 32-3
■ Innings: 195.1
■ ERA: 0.90
■ Complete games: 20
■ Strikeouts: 245
■ Walks: 37
Big Ten softball tournament
At Madison, Wis.; all games on BTN
No. 7 Wisconsin vs. No. 10 Purdue, noon
No. 6 Illinois vs. No. 11 Maryland, 2:30 p.m.
No. 8 Michigan State vs. No. 9 Nebraska, 5:30 p.m.
No. 5 Ohio State vs. No. 12 Iowa, 8 p.m.
No. 2 Minnesota vs. Wisconsin-Purdue winner, noon
No. 3 Indiana vs. Illinois-Maryland winner, 2:30 p.m.
No. 1 Michigan vs. Michigan State-Nebraska winner, 5:30 p.m.
No. 4 Northwestern vs. Ohio State-Iowa winner, 8 p.m.
Minnesota_Wisconsin-Purdue winner vs. Indiana_Illinois-Maryland winner, 2 p.m.
Michigan_Michigan State-Nebraska winner vs. Northwestern_Ohio State-Iowa winner, 4:30 p.m.
Semifinal winners, 7 p.m.