Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins and her team have adapted quickly to the new normal of video chats as a way to stay engaged while also maintaining some level of competitiveness.
It was crushing news for all college spring sport athletes, as well as those participating in winter postseason events, when their seasons were canceled last month as the country continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Michigan softball and baseball teams were just getting ready to begin their home schedules last month when the decision was made.
The softball coaches and players have found inventive ways to continue communicating while encouraging the athletes, who are completing their semesters with online class, to stay in shape. They’ve also decided to still hold their annual softball academy that raises money for breast cancer awareness as a one-hour virtual camp, complete with an online auction, April 23.
“It’s a challenge of a lifetime to have a team and have a purpose, because we didn’t want to just say, 'Season’s over, see ya until whenever we get together again,’” Hutchins told The Detroit News. “And we’re keeping the seniors engaged, and the seniors are largely graduated. They graduate in a couple weeks. I said to them, ‘You’re still on our team,’ and they’re leading this whole charge.
“So I’m really pleased and want, at the end of the day, that we come out of this a strong team that works in cooperation with each other and we’re all better. We’re better people physically, emotionally, mentally, and, hopefully, generously. That’s our goal.”
The NCAA voted last week to allow an extra year of eligibility for those participating in spring sports, but Hutchins said it’s too early to say how that will affect her program going forward.
For now, it’s all about this team staying in contact.
The team, including the support staff, has been divided among four teams each captained by one of Michigan’s four softball seniors, Abby Skvarce, Madison Uden, Thais Gonzalez and Haley Hoogeraad. They convene every Wednesday via an online visual chat. The players also managed to trick Hutchins into sending in a video of her just looking all around for an opening to their social media posts.
“The kids got a hold of me and said, ‘Hey, can you do a video that needs to look like this,’” she said, laughing. “I didn’t realize until one of them called it the 'Hutch Bunch' that that's where they were going with it. They’re creative. It’s really been exactly what I was looking for. It was way better than if I would have come up with it. It will keep spiraling, too. Kids come up with new ideas all the time.”
Now the Hutch Bunch, a takeoff of the popular sitcom, “The Brady Bunch” that featured an opening with all the cast members in boxes looking up and down or across at each other, meets to see how the four teams are doing and to establish new fitness goals.
Gonzalez is in UM's Ross School of Business and created a spread sheet to document the progress. She devised a point system, and each team earns points based on fitness activities and also things like yoga or meditation, cooking classes or even learning a language. They’re also involved in a letter-writing campaign to former Michigan softball players in the health-care field.
“We’ve got smack talk. We have a social media presence, and they’re having fun with it,” Hutchins said. “They’re really engaged. The most important thing, as I charged the seniors, we’ve got to be competing and it’s not going to be on a softball field. We don’t care about softball. We just want to keep that competitive juice going.
“We were thinking what do to with all this, and this is what we’ve come up with. You just want to compete, and I’ve told the kids already, this is a great time to really focus on your fitness. Strength training is difficult without a gym, but there are a lot of ways to get stronger and faster. I said it’s not really about softball. Your emotional well-being is at stake and you’re going to feel better if you get outside every day and have a purpose. And then when we really do have a chance to get back after it, you’ll be ready to go.”
Hutchins doesn’t know if she was the first participant selected when the four captains drafted their teams.
“They had a conference call and they hammered it out, so I don’t know if got picked or they got stuck,” she said, laughing.
'Extreme leadership training'
But the weekly meetings also are substantive. The team was scheduled to meet Wednesday with a member of "The Program," a team of former special operations military members and elite athletes. This group, which softball has worked with before, challenges athletes to become better leaders.
“They teach what I call extreme leadership training,” Hutchins said.
She asked the speaker to offer the players more motivation.
“We’re doing a good job of keeping of the mind that this isn’t happening to us, and we’re not feeling sorry for us,” Hutchins said. “But it’s the reminder that you really only have one choice in life when you are faced with whatever your mountain is. We need a reminder we learned from The Program.”
Each week she wants to have speakers share their insights with the team.
“We’re not talking about how to hit a softball,” she said. “We’re not even talking softball. We’ll move into it maybe at some point, maybe when the College World Series was to be played and we’ll have them look at footage of games and do some exercise involved with it. But right now we are still working to be connected and help them with their emotional wellness.”
Part of keeping them engaged is the annual UM Softball Academy, which partners with the American Cancer Society to raise money for breast cancer research and awareness. It has been wildly successful, with on-field instruction by the players and coaches -- each team, which raises donations, has a player work with it -- a dinner and an auction, that has raised more than $100,000 annually.
Hutchins said they debated whether to go on with the event April 23.
“Mindfully, we spent some time talking about whether this is the right time to be doing the academy,” said Hutchins, who quickly decided that making it a virtual academy could work. “We had already a number of people raise money in the $35,000 to $40,0000 range and sponsors. We have 86 participants, and they’re excited. They have a team, and one of the kids is going to be their coach.
"It’s certainly going to be not nearly like what we have on the field, but it’s a night to celebrate something good. But we’re very sensitive to fundraising, and I said I don’t think we should pursue any further sponsors and it should be gently attracting donations. If you can’t donate this year, we’d love for you to be a part of it. You can’t be a part of it, we hope you’ll stay in touch with us and peruse the silent auction.”
Michigan men’s basketball coach Juwan Howard recently agreed to donate a basketball experience that includes attending a practice and spending time with the staff.
“It’s definitely going to be small version, but I just feel breast cancer is still breast cancer, and we understand COVID is the big foe, but we’re in this with the American Cancer Society, and we figure people will do what they’re comfortable with and that’s how we want to present it,” she said.
She said the players have been shooting video of various softball skills and also including the bloopers.
“Lexie Blair is teaching catching the ball at the fence,” Hutchins said, laughing. “Her cousin is tossing the ball to the garage door and whams it at the garage door and Lexie goes slamming into it, falls and laughs.”
If in the next few weeks it feels inappropriate to continue with the academy, Hutchins said it could be postponed. But for now, keeping the fundraiser going seems like a good thing to the players.
“Our kids are all on board with it. I think they’re having fun with it,” Hutchins said. “They really enjoy the academy. The engagement with the community and their fans is life memories.
“And we are raising money. It’s not going to be the $150,000 we’ve been accustomed to, but, to me, any money we’ve raised -- we’re already close to $40,000 -- I think it’s one of our biggest wins ever. I’m very proud of it, and I’ve been pushing to keep moving forward. I just think we tread lightly.”