Ann Arbor – It is the start of the season and Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins knows it will take time to sort out a starting lineup with her young, inexperienced team.

The Wolverines open Friday in the South Florida Tournament in Tampa ranked No. 18 in the NCAA poll. Hutchins, entering her 36th season as Michigan head coach, has a national championship on her resume and is the winningest coach in NCAA softball history, but the postseason has been tricky to navigate recently.

Michigan hasn’t been out of an NCAA regional since 2016, and Hutchins isn’t happy. The Wolverines have won 18 regional titles under her leadership. They were one win from advancing last season but tough James Madison swept the final two games in Ann Arbor.

"It doesn't sit well, and I don't accept it," Hutchins said recently. "I understand that the ball is not always going to go our way. But I believe Michigan can be a competitive top-16 team.

"That is the goal. Our senior classes, it's not lost on them (they haven’t advanced out of the regional).”

Michigan opens against Georgia State and Illinois State on Friday.

It marks the beginning of a long season that every softball team hopes ends in Oklahoma City for the World Series.

“The standard for this program is Oklahoma City and it is to be a national contender,” pitcher Meghan Beaubien said. “We’re definitely aware that’s not where we’ve been the past few years. We don’t think that’s acceptable.”

Michigan emerged from the fall schedule with plenty of room to improve. The Wolverines must replace five starters.

“Fall ball is meaningless. As a coach, you can set your compass with, ‘Oh, this is the direction we need to get with this team,’ and you can gauge what you need to get better at,” Hutchins said. “And my book was full, so we’re still working through those pages. There’s a lot to get better at for our team.”

Competition is ongoing for starting spots, although pitchers Beaubien and Alex Storako will be relied on this season, and Hannah Carson will be behind the plate and Lexie Blair in the outfield.

“It will evolve as we go,” Hutchins said. “We’re going to find the best nine that play together. It is competitive. I don’t see our lineup being set. I don’t like that. I don’t like not having a set lineup. That can take a good four to six weeks into the season, but it does evolve.”

In an effort to develop chemistry and enhance camaraderie, Hutchins recently surprised the team with an axe-throwing expedition

“We had fun together,” Hutchins said. “We were competing in something nobody knows how to do, so that was cool. I was mostly concerned they were going to throw that axe right through their leg. We just competed and I said I always hope you have this much fun competing because it’s a game.

“We just play. We’re going to do a lot of that. We’ve got to enjoy being around each other. We’re all different, we’re all diverse, we’re a team and you’ve got to get along with your teammates. We try to create some of those moments.”

Hutchins has 1,616 career victories and has led the program to 12 World Series appearances. There are new challenges every season, and Hutchins said she relishes the opportunity to get back on the field.

“When you walk in the dugout every day, you don't have to have to try to work,” she said. “You just are like, 'Let's go.' I could walk in that dugout every day of my life. It's what you do. You're around all these kids and you're here to inspire them and help make them great. And, you know, I fall short every day, but every day, I get back and try to do better." @chengelis