Michigan coach Carol Hutchins discusses the Wolverines' 8-0 victory over St. Francis in their NCAA Tournament opener Friday. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — And now comes the real test for the Michigan softball team.
The Wolverines were not expected to struggle with St. Francis (Pa.), which entered with a 29-29 record, and didn't. They cruised to an 8-0 run-rule shutout in six innings in their NCAA Regional opener Friday at Alumni Field.
Michigan (44-11), hosting a regional for the first time since 2016, has won 32 of its last 33 games and remains unbeaten at home.
But now for the real challenge. The Wolverines will play James Madison (48-7), which arrived disappointed it did not earn one of the 16 seeds to host a regional, at noon Saturday. The Dukes beat DePaul, 5-2, in the first game on Friday.
No. 19-ranked Michigan and No. 16 James Madison played earlier this season, with the Dukes winning, 3-0, in nine innings.
The winner of the regional, which concludes Sunday, will advance to a Super Regional against the winner of the regional hosted by UCLA, the No. 2 overall tournament seed.
“It was a great game,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “St. Francis played hard. Took away a number of our well-hit balls. Took us a little bit to get going. I told the kids, I’ve been in a lot of these tournaments, the first game is always — I have butterflies. I thought we really worked through those really well. Hannah Carson came up big for us. Obviously losing (catcher) Katie (Alexander), we don’t know where we’re at with that. (Carson) did a great job behind the plate, she did a great job at the plate.
“I told them we’ve got to get ready for a really tough battle (against James Madison).”
Unknown for the Wolverines’ key tournament game is the status of Alexander, who injured her right knee in the first inning. She continued to play through the top of the second inning, but was replaced by Carson, who batted in the bottom of the second. Carson went 2-for-3 and had an RBI.
“It was the back of her knee,” Hutchins said of Alexander's injury. “She said, ‘Something hit me,’ and then she thought it was the umpire’s knee into her knee. She’s getting an MRI. We’re going to check it out. She seems stable. She’s able to walk on it. She’s sore."
Alexander wanted to stay in the game, but the staff decided the best move would be to go to Carson, who had played in 30 games this season, including nine starts.
“I was hoping she was all right,” Carson said. “I knew no matter what, if I had to go in, my teammates trusted me and my coaches trusted me. I just used what I’ve been practicing in practice.”
Michigan starting pitcher Meghan Beaubien looked strong, allowing two hits with six strikeouts in five innings. Beaubien entered the NCAA Tournament with plenty of steam after earning Big Ten Tournament MVP last week with 16 strikeouts over 15.2 innings pitched. Hutchins said Thursday both of Michigan's top pitchers would see plenty of playing time this weekend, and freshman Alex Storako took over in the top of the sixth.
Hutchins was asked what she saw from Beaubien in the outing.
“I saw Meghan,” Hutchins said. “She was attacking them, I thought. The few times that it wasn’t a great pitch, she came back. Resilience is the key and she came back and threw good pitches. She was a great leader for us.”
Beaubien thought she was poised during the first tournament game.
“I think I’m just really focusing on the right things,” she said. “Really figuring out what works for me from a mentality standpoint, and the biggest thing is trusting my pitches and trusting what I can do is enough to be successful.”
Switching catchers from Alexander to Carson didn’t faze her.
“The biggest difference in this case is going from your catcher you’ve thrown to for two years and you’re very used to. But ultimately, Katie’s fantastic and I really hope she’s OK, but I trust Hannah as well and Hannah’s done awesome this year,” Beaubien said. “She came in and didn’t miss a beat. It didn’t feel like a big physical difference. I think she did a great job.”
Michigan broke the game open the bottom of the third inning when it scored four runs. Faith Canfield, who led off the inning with a double to center, scored when Lexie Blair grounded out. Natalie Peters advanced to second. Mackenzie Nemitz had an RBI double down the first-base line to give Michigan a 2-0 lead. The Wolverines built a four-run lead when Carson reached on a field error and Madison Uden and Nemitz scored.
“I think we were striking the ball well. I think mine was the first one that finally didn’t go to someone,” Canfield said. “Nat comes after me and keeps it going. So I think we were able to bust it open and have a hard hit ball that wasn’t straight to someone, (and) that got the momentum going.”
Canfield, a senior, was here in 2016 the last the Wolverines hosted an NCAA regional, and said this senior-led team has embraced a more relaxed but focused approach.
“Everyone is doing their part and everyone trusting the process and enjoying it,” Canfield said, explaining why this team and season have been successful. “I think in the past we kind of — I don’t want to say put too much pressure on ourselves, but just weren’t really enjoying it. This team more than any other team, we’re playing as a team and that’s giving us the biggest advantage over everyone, just how together we are.”
Nemitz made it 5-0 by scoring from first on a double by Carson in the bottom of the fifth. Canfield added to the lead with a solo home run in the bottom of the sixth. Canfield went 2-for-4 in the game and now has nine home runs this season, tied for second on the team with Alex Sobczak. Alexander leads the team with 10.
With bases loaded and one out, Uden was hit by a pitch to score Peters and Nemitz’s fly out to center scored Blair to secure the win.
The bottom of the lineup delivered for Michigan as Nemitz, Carson and Haley Hoogenraad each went 2-for-3. Nemitz also scored two runs and had two RBIs.
Now the Wolverines will face a talented group in James Madison that has won 20-straight games and entered the NCAA Tournament leading the nation in scoring. The Dukes are second in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and batting average, and third in home runs.
“They’re a good team all the way around,” Hutchins said. “I feel like it’s going to be a great battle. There’s nothing like this time of year to play great teams, and you have to play great teams to get where you want to go. I expect it to be a really tough game and we just need to come out — I’m going to follow Faith’s advice. We just need to have fun and enjoy this process.”
Northwestern 15, Detroit Mercy 1 (5 innings): The Wildcats (45-10) blew the game open with six runs in the second and nine more in the third. Jordyn Rudd, Kenna Wilkey and Danielle Williams homered for Northwestern, and Williams was the winning pitcher. Ellie Boteler drove in the run for Mercy (31-28).
Ann Arbor Regional
All games at Alumni Field
Format: Double elimination
Game 1: No. 2 James Madison 5, No. 3 DePaul 2
Game 2: No. 1 Michigan 8, No. 4 St. Francis 0
Game 3: James Madison vs. Michigan, noon
Game 4: DePaul vs. St. Francis, 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.