Ann Arbor — They haven’t had the exact journeys, but Michigan softball seniors Alex Sobczak and Mackenzie Nemitz have reached a similar destination this season.
The first three years of their careers had been nothing close to what might have been predicted or hoped for, and yet, they have been studies in perseverance, abandoning the lows and channeling their energies into a positive final sendoff. Sobczak and Nemitz are important cogs in a senior class that has led the 21st-ranked Wolverines from a sluggish season start to a Big Ten regular-season championship and the No. 1 seed in the tournament that begins Thursday at Indiana. Michigan has a first-round bye and will begin its title quest in a quarterfinal Friday afternoon.
Michigan (40-11, 22-1 Big Ten) earned the outright Big Ten championship last Sunday and have now won 21 of the last 28 conference regular-season championships under coach Carol Hutchins, now in her 35th season as Michigan head coach.
Sobczak, a former Gatorade Player of the Year out of Mercy, and Nemtiz, a two-time All-State selection from Lake Shore High, have had breakout seasons. Sobczak is batting .356, has nine home runs and leads the team in on-base percentage (.494). Nemitz, who suffered a torn ACL and missed the 2017 season, had only one hit in seven plate appearances her first three seasons, and is now batting .305 and has a .516 slugging percentage.
Hutchins has been coaching long enough to know that no matter what their high school success, each player takes different paths to reach their goals. Both seniors, among five who have led the team this year, have learned what it takes to overcome setbacks and turn them into success stories.
Sobczak, announced Wednesday as an All-Big Ten second-team selection who also made the All-Defensive team as a first baseman, arrived at Michigan as a highly touted player whom Hutchins projected as her starting catcher as a freshman. She also has been used at third base until this season finding a home at first. Sobczak has taken a demanding academic course load and intends to study to become a radiologist.
“Mentally, it’s a lot being a Div. I athlete,” Sobczak said. “The reality is, it’s a lot more challenging at this level. I’ve had my struggles. It’s frustrating when you think you’re going to come in and have a presence. My path was different than I expected, but I'm playing a lot looser now and not worrying about anything.”
Hutchins and Sobczak had a heart-to-heart conversation before this season and that paid off.
“Alex’s journey wasn’t what she thought it was going to be, and it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be,” Hutchins said. “She came in slated to be our starting catcher as a freshman. She was highly regarded, Gatorade Player of the Year. She was highly recruited by a number of schools in the Big Ten and others. It didn’t work out. She worked out in the beginning of the year and didn’t go in the direction we wanted. We made that change and she seemed to struggle in the area of staying consistent and confident. The biggest word we’ve used is being present. Her sophomore year, as I watched in the summer, I thought she might be a better third baseman, and last year moved her to that position.
“Each year, it didn’t work out. Her numbers weren’t good. I didn’t think her presence wasn’t good. She came in this year, and I said to her, ‘This isn’t working. This needs to work better. The way this has gone every year, we just can’t have it.’ What did that mean? It meant, ‘Get your (stuff) together.’ She came in this year, and talent hasn’t been an issue. It’s just been producing consistently. This year, she didn’t start. We put her at first base when Lou Allan went down. We put her and (Taylor) Bump over there. (Sobczak) no longer had the pressure to start and be great. She started to fight to play. You know what? It was the button that seemed to work. When she came in the third weekend at LSU, her energy and her leadership on the field, I had never seen her like that. I was like, ‘Wow,’ and she was present.”
Nemitz, like Sobczak, looks at her career and has a philosophical response. She has thought about this. A lot. She lived it and learned from it and during the grueling ACL recovery process, she learned who she was and what she wanted.
“It’s been a difficult (path),” said Nemitz, a designated player. “Unusual, I would say. But I think it’s made me who I am today, so it’s benefited me in more ways than it’s had a negative impact.”
So who is she now?
“I’m a strong individual,” she said. “I truly have grown from everything and while in the moment and everything was going on from freshman to junior year, everything seemed so down, but I always rose. When having adversity now, I’m quicker to rise up. Whether it was the usual path or not, I stuck with it and kept pushing.”
As designated player, Nemitz, known for her loud voice, is a constant presence from the dugout, staying in the game pitch-by-pitch helping her teammates on defense. It is her selflessness that Hutchins says has been key this season.
“Her injury set her back, really set her back,” Hutchins said. “Last year, she was better but way behind. It’s unfortunate. But the kids who keep working toward their goal, working toward helping the team, it’s called — you take care of the game. If you take care of the game, the game will take care of you. I feel like that’s what’s happened with Kenzie. She’s had moments it wasn’t going her way and she let us know about it. It’s not just an option to go that direction. You have to stay in the direction of, ‘I’m here to help contribute. What can I do?’ Last year in our postseason meetings she said, ‘Whether I’m on the field or not, I want to be that person that helps this team be better.’ I took her at her word. She came in this year, and she was physically better. She had a lot of opportunities, and she didn’t always do great, but she was just consistent, and we noted it. We kept giving her opportunities. She didn’t do anything flashy, but she did her part, and she kept contributing. It’s what we needed.
“She gave us that boost and that great energy she has and that loud voice. She’s made good on the opportunity. Good things happen to those who persevere. She’s kind of a poster girl for the kids, who things didn’t go their way the first three years. And you can look at (the situation) and say, ‘It’s not going my way’ and blame other people. At some point, it’s not anybody’s fault. Nobody’s wishing certain kids do well and certain kids don’t. We’re just trying to get the best out of every kid and her case, this has been a golden opportunity for her and she’s really helped us.”
Going through the injury enlightened Nemitz and gave her perspective.
“There were so many little victories that I learned to celebrate that,” she said. “I think I am so much more appreciative of being able to wake up in the middle of the night and go to the bathroom and not being in pain. I feel like I had to go through that stuff in the beginning to really find the inner strength. My freshman year when I wasn’t traveling, I wasn’t playing, I was like, ‘Pity me, pity me. This sucks.’ Sophomore year, tear my ACL and I was like, ‘Ah man, this really sucks.’ It took a long time until I was finally like, ‘No, you’ve got this, keep pushing.’ I had to fight those little battles to get to this ultimate point of starting. I think I really found myself these past three years. I wasn’t really faced with adversity in high school, travel (team). Everything came so easy to me. Got here and it was a rude awakening. I was like, ‘Oh, crap.’ ”
As Michigan prepares for a postseason run beginning with the Big Ten tournament, Hutchins believes her team has been playing with a postseason approach the last 20 games. She credits the senior class for its guidance, especially after the early-season grind. Sobczak said she finally feels at ease starting and playing a major role.
It sounds like a simple thing, but what she had been lacking was confidence.
“Confidence is a fragile thing,” she said. “You can go 3-for-3 and then if you don’t get a hit, your confidence can take a hit. I am a senior, and I have nothing to lose. That’s what’s helping me play — I’m playing to have fun.”
Hutchins said Sobczak has “one of the best eyes we’ve ever had” but can’t get her to swing enough. She leads the team with 26 walks.
“Being on base has been huge for her and for us,” Hutchins said. “Her confidence just soared. It’s been fun to be around her. She’s been engaged and present. I’m happy for her and I’m happy for Kenzie. Persevering.
"Everybody’s journey isn’t the way you thought it was going to be. They’ll leave here, and they’ll be better people than some of the kids who, their journey went the way it was supposed to. We say all the time, it’s not whether you fall down, it’s whether you get back up."
Big Ten tournament
At Bloomington, Indiana; 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.