Michigan fends off Purdue to win 2nd straight Big Ten title; College Football Playoff next

Wolverines send statement, build belief with title game run

Dan Hoppen
Special to The Detroit News
Michigan coach Erik Bakich, center, is hugged by Ako Thomas (4) as they watch Vanderbilt celebrate winning the College World Series Finals.

Omaha, Neb. — Jimmy Kerr wasn’t in a very reflective mood.

The wounds were still too fresh for the senior to consider the long-term ramifications of Michigan’s season.

The question came only about 40 minutes after Vanderbilt defeated the Wolverines, 8-2, in the final game of the College World Series, after which Kerr and his teammates stayed on the field to watch the Commodores accept the trophy they came so close to winning. As Kerr sat at the podium and addressed the media for the final time in his career, he was asked to reflect on how far the program had come in his four years.

“Right now it sucks,” he said. “We (seniors) knew our careers would end tonight, but we were hoping it would be in a better way. It's tough to think about right now, but we'll look back in maybe not a week, maybe not a month, but years down the road. It'll be fond memories.”

Whenever the time comes, once the wounds have healed, the Wolverines will be very proud of this season.

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This Michigan squad was one of the most successful in school history. It won 50 games, a 17-win improvement over last year, and its most since 1987. It advanced to the CWS for the first time since 1984. It had five players selected in the MLB Draft, including three in the top three rounds.

And it made a statement to the rest of the country that the Big Ten, and Northern baseball overall, was no pushover.

“We've talked about in a recruiting pitch that Midwest kids don't need to go south to develop into professional players and to make postseason runs,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “And we've talked about kids from outside of the Big Ten footprint, outside of the Midwest, that they can come to Michigan and have that same experience.”

History was a major motivator for the Wolverines this season. The team adopted the slogan “Team 153” to honor the 152 Michigan squads that came before it. But even the most optimistic Michigan supporter couldn’t have seen chapter 153 playing out like this.

“There's just so many story lines that have come out of this group of getting knocked down and getting back up and fighting through adversity and just having a bunch of just good dudes,” Bakich said.

“And I think that future teams will always reference back to this particular group as a model of consistency, you know, of how to take care of the littlest of things and having total buy-in, never doubting, even when it would be very easy to doubt, even when we had some slip-ups. But they didn't, and they stuck with it. They stayed positive, and they got hot when they needed to, and they made the run that we needed to in order to put ourselves in position to be one game away from a national championship.”

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The Wolverines will a good deal of retooling to do this offseason. Gone are starting pitchers Karl Kauffman (77th pick in the MLB Draft) and Tommy Henry (74th pick), as both are expected to sign with the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks, respectively. Outfielder Jordan Brewer (106th pick to the Houston Astros) could join them. The Wolverines also lose stalwarts Kerr, Ako Thomas, and Blake Nelson to graduation.

But the foundation is built. The program has made the postseason three times in Bakich’s seven years and have won at least 42 games in two of the past three seasons. Advancing to the CWS Finals put the program on the map nationally. It may not have been the most successful season in school history (UM won national titles in 1953 and 1962), but it may end up being the most impactful.

And this team created belief. Belief that a Northern team could overcome the elements and early season travel. Belief that, even when down to their final strike, the season wasn’t over. Belief that Bakich can build a sustainable winner in Ann Arbor.

That’s what Team 153 did. It might be tough for the Wolverines to truly comprehend their impact in the wake of their loss, but time will reveal how special the season was.

“A lot of people didn't expect us to be here,” Thomas said. “And we fought our butts off, and we're very proud.”

Dan Hoppen is a freelance writer.