Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins has a way of boiling things down to the nitty-gritty and the fine details.
But there is an amusing term she likes to use that she believes makes a team hard to beat in the postseason.
The top-seeded Wolverines (40-11, 22-1 Big Ten) earned the outright Big Ten championship last Sunday in a 12-3 win at Maryland and with Northwestern’s shutout loss at Minnesota. Michigan gets a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament that begins Thursday at Indiana, and will play the winner of Nebraska-Illinois on Friday afternoon.
The 12-team single-elimination tournament concludes with Saturday’s championship game at Indiana’s Andy Mohr Field. The champion earns an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan moved up a spot to No. 21 in the national rankings after winning the program’s second straight regular-season title. The Wolverines have won 21 of the last 28 conference regular-season championships. For Hutchins, in her 35th season as Michigan head coach, this time of year is when the fun truly begins.
“I told our kids the other day, the reasons we do everything we do all year, it’s to get to the postseason,” Hutchins said Tuesday on the Big Ten softball conference call. “ I think the greatest thing about postseason play is regardless what’s gone on all year, your team becomes one big selfless amoeba. Everybody just playing together.”
That’s sort of difficult to process, and then when you really think about it, this Hutchism makes total sense in this context.
After a rough start to the season, playing on the road and trying to find an identity, the Wolverines began to click in a big way. They won games in which they needed to come back, and they dominated teams they should have dominated. Their one league blemish was a loss at Ohio State.
So how does a team become a selfless amoeba? Does it always become one in the postseason?
“Honestly, I feel from the minute we got back from our preseason travels, our team had kinda found its way through some difficult early season games, and the seniors put the team on their back and said, ‘We’re going to get this done.’ And they’ve done it for us on the field,” Hutchins said. “When somebody isn’t getting it done, because inevitably every game, some people are on, some aren’t, they’ve picked each other up, they’ve stepped up for each other and they’ve never quit.
“This team has reminded me all season, especially our last 20 games, that they’re just one big selfless amoeba. That’s often what happens in postseason. We’ve been postseason ball for a good portion of the year.”
That’s a significant statement for a coach whose goal is to win the Big Ten tournament and host an NCAA Regional. That might be a tall task, but more than likely the Wolverines will have to beat either No. 2 seed Northwestern (42-9, 21-2 Big Ten) or No. 3 Minnesota (39-11, 20-2), the three-time defending tournament champion, and a win over either would give the Wolverines' RPI a boost. Whether that would be enough would be for the NCAA Tournament committee to decide.
Pitching is always key in the postseason and Michigan has a one-two punch in sophomore Meghan Beaubien and freshman Alex Storako. Storako entered the final regular-season game at Maryland last Sunday with bases loaded and no outs. After walking the first batter, she finished the game with three straight strikeouts.
“I have to say that Alex Storako has done the one thing coaches enjoy -- she gets better every week,” Hutchins said. “She’s given us a whole different look. She’s given us an added arm when we needed one, and we have needed that. Meghan has had some fantastic games, and she’s had some games we needed to give teams a different look. Storako has stepped it up, especially the last month. And going into this postseason, we’re going to need it. We’re very pleased with her emergence, and I credit her work ethic and her complete trust in our pitching coach, Jen Brundage.”
The Wolverines’ journey to success this season has been about the team’s five seniors, Hutchins said.
“This year’s team has been extremely player-driven, and I would say very much led by our senior class,” she said. “ Our seniors have been outstanding all year from the moment they got back to campus in late August and made their statement they wanted this team to be different than the last couple teams. They wrote out their own game plan for that, including the young kids who were going to come in and help this program and made sure everybody stayed on page. They’ve been an outstanding class.
“I’ll go as far to say as they’re one of our best senior classes. I hope they give us a great postseason run.”
Big Ten tournament
At Bloomington, Ind; all games on Big Ten Network
►No. 12 Iowa vs. No. 5 Wisconsin, 11 a.m.
►No. 9 Illinois vs. No. 8 Nebraska, 1:30 p.m.
►No. 10 Penn State vs. No. 7 Indiana, 4:30 p.m.
►No. 11 Purdue vs. No. 6 Rutgers, 7 p.m.
►Iowa-Wisconsin winner vs. No. 4 Ohio State, 11 a.m.
►Illinois-Nebraska winner vs. No. 1 Michigan, 1:30 p.m.
►Penn State-Indiana winner vs. No. 2 Northwestern, 4:30 p.m.
►Purdue-Rutgers winner vs. No. 3 Minnesota, 7 p.m.
►Semifinals, noon and 2:30 p.m.
►Championship, 5 p.m.