Michigan’s softball team isn’t entering the NCAA Tournament on the high it had hoped for coming off an early exit from the Big Ten tournament, but the Wolverines still feel capable of being a force in the NCAA Tournament.
The Wolverines (43-11) were the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament but were upset by Michigan State, 7-0, in a second-round game. With that loss and a so-so RPI, that meant Michigan would not host an NCAA regional this weekend.
Instead, the Wolverines, winners of the Big Ten regular-season title, will play a first-round NCAA Tournament game against Notre Dame (32-21) at noon Friday in the Lexington, Ky., regional. The tournament bracket was revealed Sunday night. Illinois-Chicago (33-19) and Kentucky (31-19) also are in the regional. UIC beat Oakland to win the Horizon League tournament championship.
“We haven’t played enough teams with good RPI and the ones we did play, we got some wins, but we didn’t get enough,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “We lost chances to win when we could have.”
Michigan has been in the NCAA Tournament field each of the last 23 seasons and has reached the Women’s College World Series 12 times. The Wolverines won the 2005 national championship.
Hutchins, named the Big Ten coach of the year last week before the start of the Big Ten Tournament, had said that even if the Wolverines won the tournament, their RPI wouldn’t be good enough to put them in position to host a regional.
Still, she is confident her team can be a threat on the road.
“It’s a good season, but what we’re striving for, we strive to be in the top eight (in the country), so we’re not,” Hutchins said last week.
“But that being said, I think we’re the team you wouldn’t necessarily want to draw. ‘Oh, great Michigan is coming. They’re not seeded.’ That’s how we need to reframe it. We’re going to have to be road warriors, and it’s possible. We did in 2014, went out to Arizona State, and we have to embrace that. And sometimes not being the top dog, being the top dog is a whole different dynamic.”
To be that kind of threat, though, the Wolverines will have to find consistent offense. Left-hander Meghan Beaubien, the Big Ten pitcher of the year and freshman of the year, has been outstanding this season but took the loss against Michigan State. She is 32-4 heading into the NCAA Tournament.
While she didn’t have her best outing in the Big Ten tournament, Beaubien has shown this season that she is a force. Defense and pitching have been mainstays for the Wolverines this season, but in that loss to Michigan State, their recent deficiencies at the plate were evident.
The Wolverines struggled at the plate tying a season-low three hits and had a season-high 10 strikeouts.
Before the Big Ten tournament last week, Hutchins said the offense had been keep her awake at night. She said they needed one player to get hot with the bat and that could be “contagious” and get the hitting going.
Of course, the converse is true, too.
“They’re also contagious when they’re cold,” Hutchins said. “I always say we’re a work in progress, every team is. We just keep trying to get it going. We just keep trying to give them information that can help them, give them tips, just help them be great. That’s what you do as a coach.
“I don’t believe just leave it up to them, but at some point, honestly, it is up to them. They’re the ones who win. They won the trophy, they win the game. I can’t pitch for them, I can’t hit for them.”
Michigan was one of five Big Ten teams to make the NCAA Tournament, along with Ohio State, Minnesota, Northwestern and Wisconsin.
Game 1: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 Notre Dame, noon (ESPN2)
Game 2: No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 4 Illinois-Chicago, 2:30 p.m.
Game 3: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, noon
Game 4: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 2:30 p.m.
Game 5: Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 winner, 5 p.m.
Game 6: Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner, noon
Game 7 (if necessary): Game 6 winner vs. Game 6 loser, 2:30 p.m.