Ann Arbor — Something happened to the Michigan softball team in late February in a tight loss at LSU.
Michigan coach Carol Hutchins can’t pinpoint how things changed or who or what was the catalyst, but that loss, which dropped the Wolverines to 6-8, gave a team that had been searching for something, anything to turn things around, an enormous spark. Yes, that's right — they gained a season-changing boost from a loss.
Now, the 22nd-ranked Wolverines are 37-11 and 19-1 in the Big Ten with a final regular-season series this weekend at Maryland before the conference tournament next week at Indiana. They are second in the Big Ten behind Northwestern, which plays at third-place Minnesota for a final series, also this weekend.
The Wolverines, the defending conference regular-season champions, have enjoyed a 17-game winning streak this season and have won eight straight heading to Maryland.
Hutchins, who recently became the first softball coach to reach 1,600 wins, likes where this team is as it makes the final push into the postseason. The Wolverines learned to play with grit and, as their coach prefers, with a pitch-by-pitch mentality and approach.
“We’re playing good ball,” she said this week. “We’re not always doing everything perfect, and we haven’t always pitched well. But our kids have been able to battle back, and I have never seen in the recent years our team battle back like this one.
"There’s a few games we’ve been lagging, and I think, ‘Maybe we need to get behind.' They have been confident in each other, and they don’t play with the enormous pressure that they played with earlier in the year and last year. They believe in each other and more importantly, they’re playing with more passion. They’re freer. They’re having fun. They have more trust.”
Hutchins says the start of the season wasn't fun, and as she looks back now, it’s like talking about another team.
“It was rough. It wasn’t good,” Hutchins said, starting to laugh a bit. “It wasn’t good, because we weren’t playing good softball. We weren’t pitching well. We weren’t hitting well. We were only hitting .229 and then we got up to about .250. We were finding ways to lose, and that’s really the first 14 games. We were 6-8, and I felt like our best showing was at LSU after the first day, we lost a game. We were 1-1 with Stanford in the sixth inning and we brought in (pitcher Meghan) Beaubien, and then it was 7-1. It was just backward.
“You name it — it was giving up hits, wild pitches, defensive miscues, and again, we were playing like a team that didn’t know to play softball. We played LSU that night and Beaubien pitched a really good game, but we just weren’t hitting. And then we played the next day against two teams, Cal Northridge and Memphis, two teams we were supposed to beat, but it was ugly. But it was wins. We need 'em. I was at the point where we needed to win games for no other reason than this team needs to feel good.
"Then we played LSU that Sunday, and for some reason, and all I can say, somebody flipped a switch. I don’t know who flipped it. The whole team flipped. They came out, they had great energy. They played good softball. We ended up losing 2-1. Had several chances to win it. But we walked out of there like we had won. Those kids knew that they had come out and played with the energy that they hadn’t had. They were playing to win. I said, ‘You guys, this is good enough. This will win us games if you play like this.’"
Senior designated player Mackenzie Nemitz said all of the players realized they had what it took to nearly beat then-No. 9 LSU, and everything started to click.
“In that moment, we were looking to our left, looking to our right, and we realized, everyone can get it done,” Nemitz said. “It took the burden of, 'You having to get everything done. You having to hit the tying run in and having to win the game.' Just taking the burden off. You have fun with the game now. You have more fun. I know if I go up to the plate and don’t get it done, Haley Hoogenraad is going to get it done.
“We all have our different little quirks. But we all know how each other ticks. That’s key to a team. We really understand each other. It’s a cohesive unit. We’re all playing for each other, and I think that’s what we took and ran with.”
After that epiphany at LSU, the Wolverines headed west and faced then-No. 2 UCLA.
“And I’m like, ‘Bad timing,’ ” Hutchins said, smiling again. “They are like the New York Yankees of the softball world right now. They are that good. We went out there and just played. And we win the game.”
Then, as the Wolverines gained momentum, a rainout challenged their focus and rhythm. So Hutchins decided they would all see a movie that she would select — “On the Basis of Sex,” the story of U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“They loved it,” Hutchins said. “Turn around the next day, now we have (then-No. 5) Washington. We beat them. And we’re just playing now, and now they’re like, ‘Whoa.’ It’s kind of like they got more in the moment of playing the innings. At the beginning of the season, they were like ‘Are we going to win or lose?’ We got a lot more one-pitch focused.”
Hutchins has also adapted to this team and has learned what buttons to push and when to scale back. When the Wolverines' 17-game winning streak was snapped at Ohio State, she saw how disappointed her players were and wasn’t angry but encouraged. There were times early this season Hutchins wanted to be angry at the team, but she knew that’s not what they needed to see or hear.
The players also embraced a new motto: “One heartbeat.”
“That’s when you don’t worry about individual stats and accolades,” said senior Alex Sobczak, who has nine home runs and leads the team in on-base percentage. “We worry about what to get done as a team.”
This is a group that fights back. Late last month, after a walk-off home run to beat Penn State to start a series sweep, Nemitz had a moment with her teammates before the coaches joined them in the locker room.
“I grabbed everyone and I was like, ‘Do you guys feel this? Because it’s something we haven’t experienced the past three years,’” Nemitz said. “If we got in a tight game and have to come back in the bottom of the seventh, we wouldn’t do it before. When it happens now, everyone is so into it. There’s this feeling when we come off the field and we’re about to bat, that like, we’re going to get it done. That’s going to be huge in the postseason.”
Hutchins’ goal is to host an NCAA Regional, but that will be tough. The Wolverines, despite winning, dropped from 15 to 17 in the RPI this week, because of their lacking strength of schedule. What they will need is an opportunity to play — and beat — Northwestern and Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament, because they carry more weight in the RPI.
“I would consider that the ultimate success of this year,” Hutchins said of hosting a regional.
Every year is a learning experience for the players and for Hutchins, in her 35th season as Michigan’s head coach. Sure, she’s probably seen it all, but every team is different, and how the players work together and respond to losses, and even to wins, also is always different. This year, though, she can step back and pat the backs of the seniors, who probably were the ones who got that flip switched early in the season.
“The seniors have been outstanding,” she said. “I think if our season ended today, this is one of the most successful teams we’ve had, because they have turned our culture upward where it needs to go.”