Michigan freshman outfielder Lexie Blair discusses her first season with the Wolverines Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Lexie Blair is 19 years old, carries herself with a maturity beyond her age, and is unfazed by the success she’s had as a freshman outfielder on the Michigan softball team.
In other words, she is a coach’s dream.
Blair, recently named a unanimous All-Big Ten first-team and All-Freshman team selection, leads Michigan with a .424 batting average that ranks third in the conference. She has a team-best 75 hits, with 21 doubles and 53 runs batted in. But here’s the thing — she is one of only four Michigan freshman to lead the team in hitting since 1995, and on that list is former National Player of the Year Sierra Romero, who led the Wolverines as a freshman in 2013 with a .379 batting average.
Michigan coach Carol Hutchins has praised the leadership from her senior class for the Wolverines’ success after a sluggish start, but Blair gets some of the credit as well. The Wolverines will host an NCAA Regional beginning Friday for the 21st time in program history and the first since 2016. They face St. Francis (Pennsylvania) on Friday at 4:30 p.m. after James Madison and DePaul play at 2 p.m. The Wolverines, winners of the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles, have won 31 of their last 32 and are 15-0 at Alumni Field.
It’s too soon to project where Blair could be as a senior, but it’s not a coincidence she’s in a group of four freshmen along with Romero, Sara Griffin (.432 in 1995), and Amanda Chidester (.350 in 2009).
“She has that kind of potential to be that kind of player,” Hutchins said Wednesday. “We’ll see — how do you handle your success?”
Blair, a top-10 finalist for the NFCA National Freshman of the Year, has handled it with aplomb. The Florida native said she doesn’t focus on statistics during the season because it could scale back her confidence and will wait to evaluate her game and find areas to improve.
“I tend to not think about my stats during the season,” Blair said. “I feel like that’s just a distraction that’s just going to ruin your mental game going up there, kinda tense you up like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get this one. I want to raise my stats.’ Probably once in the fall I’ll look back at my at-bats and my statistics and see where I want to be better and move on from there. Typically, during season, I just go out and go to the plate and do my thing. Not focus on it. If I don’t have success, I know I’ll get another chance.”
Hutchins has never had an issue playing freshmen as long as they’re “impactful,” and that’s what Blair has been. The Wolverines have had four walk-off wins this season, and Blair provided one of those recently, an eighth-inning lead-off home run to beat Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals last Friday.
“She’s just pretty unflappable,” Hutchins said. “She just shows up and does what she does. She works hard. She does everything we ask. She’s a kid that takes information and knows how to adjust with it. Some kids get information, and it’s like a deer in headlights. She’s a real savvy kid and she has a lot of self-belief, good self-esteem, raised well. Really good kid."
Blair was raised in Winter Garden, Florida, and considered herself a “homebody,” so it came as no surprise that her first college recruiting visits were to Florida and Florida State. But her mother, Krystin Strong, was born in Detroit and lived in the area before moving to Florida as a high school freshman. She still has lots of family in the metro area and near Ann Arbor, so she kept nudging her daughter to consider Michigan. They had visited here several times for Thanksgiving and Christmas, so Lexie had been to Michigan football and hockey games.
“That kind of picked up my interest here,” Blair said.
But she was never a diehard Michigan fan like the rest of her family and she had her Florida roots. She was always planning to consider Michigan, however, because of her family here and because of her familiarity with the area.
“I just really fell in love with it,” Blair said. “My mom being the Michigan fan said, ‘You know, give it a chance. Come on and visit here,’ which I was going to. I feel like I made a great decision.”
Hutchins kept her eye on the 5-foot-4 Blair during her high school career.
“She’s a good athlete, this is a kid who could help us,” Hutchins said. “Had no idea that she would come in and start and be our No. 3 batter and our leading hitter. No idea. Honestly, I didn’t know Romo would be, either. But by the time Romo was a senior in high school and on that summer circuit, I might have projected that. Because she kept getting better and better as did Lexie. But Lexie came in and blew it out of the water.”
Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins discusses freshman Lexie Blair Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Although she’s mature and confident, Blair wasn’t sure what to expect this season after the fall. Her defensive play in the field was fine, but she wasn’t quite where she wanted to be as a hitter. She said you watch the games on television and you see, in many respects, a different game than what she had been playing, and transitioning to the college game was a little intimidating.
Blair credits the seniors and upperclassmen for guiding all the freshmen, giving them pep talks when needed and talking to them between pitches to settle and focus them.
“I was really scared coming back from home after winter break because I didn’t know what to prepare for,” she said.
Being scared was mentioned a few times while talking to reporters on Wednesday but she couldn’t pinpoint exactly why she was scared. Blair spoke with Hutchins after the fall about expectations for the season.
“She asked me what I thought my role would be,” Blair said. “I’m not one to say, ‘I’m going to start.’ I said, ‘I feel like I can make a difference in the field.’ In the fall, I felt like I wasn’t hitting well. Hitting really gets you in the lineup. And she said the same thing. I was struggling a little bit in the fall, and was like, ‘Well, I really think you’re a playmaker. I count on you to go in there and get something going and be a spark plug for us.’ It was a mutual thing. She just told me, ‘You’re going to be seeing the field a lot this season and we’ll see how it goes for you.’ So, I’m here now. I feel like I’ve been keeping it consistent, which is really good. But in the beginning, it wasn’t like I came in there expecting to start. I was honestly going to be understanding about any role I had to do.
“I don’t know why I was so scared. I remember telling my mom at the airport, ‘I’m so scared.’ I really didn’t know, I didn’t feel like myself softball-wise when I was here in the fall. I didn’t have a ton to change, but those little changes were drastic. A change in the swing can be tough for some hitters, adjusting to the speed of the game, the level of pitching, I felt I was ready but I didn’t have the right amount of confidence going into it. And I just feel like that was just because during practice, a lot can go on in your head during practice. I like to just play in the games. I feel a lot more comfortable. I feel there’s less pressure in the game than in practice. That’s how it is for me. I feel like I was very surprised with myself and how I performed, but it’s stuff I’ve done before, so I look back at it like, ‘Why did I feel that way?’”
Senior Natalie Peters took Blair under her wing and helped her navigate this first season.
“I’m with her 100 percent of the time during practice being outfielders, and I’m playing next to her and I bat behind her,” Blair said. “Usually, most of the time we partner up for drills. Between each pitch I’m talking to her. At the plate she’ll come to me for advice and I’ll go to her. She’s been a great mentor for me from the first day of practice. The same goes for all the seniors, the upperclassmen. The whole team really welcomes you. They know how scary it can be and intimidating it can be coming in as a freshman. I just feel like they really did their part welcoming all of us and making it feel like we belong here and we’ve been here a while.”
And Blair has played like she’s been at Michigan a while, exactly the type of impactful freshman Hutchins likes to see.
“Lexie Blair is playing like a veteran, having fun,” Hutchins said. “I hope she keeps having fun. You can’t describe how much she’s added to the team. Her numbers are telling.”
Ann Arbor Regional
All games at Alumni Field
Format: Double elimination
Game 1: No. 2 James Madison vs. No. 3 DePaul, 2 p.m.
Game 2: No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 4 St. Francis, 4:30 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, 2 p.m.
Game 7 (if necessary): Game 6 winner vs. Game 6 loser, 4:30 p.m.