Ann Arbor — Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins’ eyes welled with tears as she spoke about the baseball team and its achievements.
Hutchins, who has taken her team to the College World Series 12 times in the last 25 years and won a national title in 2005, embraced baseball coach Erik Bakich and offered some advice on Wednesday as his team prepared to leave for Omaha and the World Series. The less colorful version of her advice — to enjoy what he and his team are about to experience.
Fans gathered to send off the Wolverines heading to the College World Series for the first time since 1984, and among them were Michigan coaches Hutchins, Bonnie Tholl and Jennifer Brundage from the softball staff, women’s basketball coach Kim Barnes Arico and football starting left guard Ben Bredeson, whose brother, Jack, is a pitcher.
Michigan, which upset No. 1 seed UCLA last weekend, will face Texas Tech in the first game 2 p.m. Saturday at TD Ameritrade Park.
Hutchins was asked what it means for her to see Bakich, in his seventh season at Michigan, lead the program, only the second Big Ten school to make the World Series since 1984, to Omaha.
“It makes you well up,” Hutchins said, her voice breaking as she covered her eyes with sunglasses. “It’s so special.
“(Bakich has) done a hell of a job. He’s worked really hard. Working hard doesn’t always get you this, though. It’s so much of a culmination of a lot of things and you have to set them all in place. You’ve got to get the right kids. You’ve got to create that vision. They really gutted through this. I’m excited for him.”
Bakich, his staff and players headed to the buses all wearing Hawaiian shirts. He credits Hutchins for this, because it was her idea, when they shared a charter flight to Maryland in early May, for each team to have a theme. The softball players dressed in ‘80s garb, and the baseball team wore Hawaiian shirts. Both teams swept those three-game series, and baseball has been sticking with the shirts.
Hutchins, in her 35 seasons at Michigan, has built a powerhouse program. She would like nothing more than to see Bakich and baseball at the top year after year. There is the built-in challenge of being a northern school winning in sports that are largely associated with warm weather, but as the softball program proved in 2005, becoming the first softball team east of the Mississippi River to win a national championship, it can be done.
Still, it’s notable that Bakich has been able to take a northern program this far.
“It’s big,” Hutchins said. “Only two Big Ten teams have made it since ’84 (Indiana reached the World Series in 2013). We’ve had a little better luck with softball, but it’s gotten harder. Did you see the LSU regional? It’s a football stadium.
“These guys practice in snow more than anybody. More than I would. It’s gotten harder. It’s way more work (recruiting). It’s nice to see people reap the rewards of it. It could happen once in your whole career. You see basketball coaches only make the Final Four one time and living then on in infamy. It doesn’t mean it’s the benchmark of the program. It just means that you can do it. A lot of things have to occur.”
Hutchins appreciates the gut-check moments the baseball team has had in the NCAA Tournament.
“They’re not afraid of losing,” Hutchins said. “You’ve got to have a couple kids like (first baseman) Jimmy Kerr saying, ‘We’re not losing this game.’ And the poor leftfielder (Christan Bullock) who dropped the ball (in Game 2 against UCLA). You know what? He was lights out the next day. He was like, ‘We’re not losing.’ I was so impressed.”
Bakich and Hutchins shared a few embraces on Wednesday and he listened to her words of wisdom.
“I’m genuinely happy for this staff,” Hutchins said. “I told my players many years when we’ve made it, ‘You know how many of your friends that you played ball with your whole life that never, ever do this? It’s most of them. It’s almost all of them.’ It’s an achievement that’s amazing. When they look back, they won’t remember whether they won or lost. They’ll remember the whole experience of it. Next year when they come back to start over, they’re going to remember the last couple weeks of the season.”