Big Ten softball champ UM seeks style points ahead of NCAA Tournament
Michigan softball, which clinched its third straight Big Ten title last weekend, is one of three teams already locked in the NCAA Tournament. But with one final regular-season series, the Wolverines want more.
They are 32-6 during this Big Ten-only season that will not feature a conference tournament. The Wolverines won 11 straight before losing at Minnesota last Sunday, a day after wrapping up the Big Ten title. They play Rutgers this weekend beginning Friday just ahead of the NCAA Selection reveal late Sunday. Michigan coach Carol Hutchins, whose team has won 22 of the last 29 conference titles and the 2005 national title, wants to host an NCAA Regional. So the Wolverines need some style points in these final games to solidify their standing with the NCAA Selection Committee.
Michigan’s Alumni Field is among 20 venues (for 16 spots) identified by the NCAA as potential regional hosts. Those early round games will be played May 21-23.
“I can guarantee you, they’re gonna look at our performance (this weekend),” Hutchins said this week. “A number of people, myself included, believe that we can be a top-16 seed. We just need to do our part. We don't control whether they seed us, and we don't control whether they select us to host, but we do control how hard we play.
"I said (to the team) we’re playing to get to the bigger stage, and it starts now. You can be happy that you won the Big Ten, or you can be like, ‘Hey, I want more than this.’ And that's where we're going with them.”
Michigan boasts two of the best pitchers in the country, Alex Storako and Meghan Beaubien and leads the Big Ten in hitting and fielding. Storako carries a .93 ERA and 236 strikeouts, including her single-game program-record 22 strikeouts May 5 against Michigan State. Beaubien has a 1.25 ERA and 176 strikeouts.
But Hutchins worries that the committee will give too much weight to RPI, and with Big Ten teams playing only conference teams, and fewer games, she believes the strength of schedule is skewed. Michigan currently is No. 29 in RPI, but a team like LSU, which is No. 5, is 32-18 overall but just above .500 in the Southeastern Conference at 13-11.
“Honestly, the Big Ten is just warming up,” Hutchins said. “Like Iowa is playing on fire right now. Our first 25 games of warm-up, we just got done with about 10 games ago. Everybody else got to get their full schedule, so for them to then turn around and say, ‘Well, we're going to use a formula that doesn't apply at all to us,’ negates our conference and our student-athletes that deserve an opportunity. Part of the problem is the RPI is used. The committee, more than anything, needs to know the strength of the teams that they're actually looking at.”
Hutchins is hopeful the softball committee studies the teams as she said the NCAA volleyball committee did and based selections off actual performances from studying film. She has had conversations with the softball NCAA regional advisory committee about looking beyond RPI.
“We need to have people to be frank that know what they're doing and not just administrators that volunteer to be on a committee,” she said. (They need to be) people that really understand our sport.”
She sees four teams in the Big Ten as certain tournament teams, including Minnesota, Northwestern and Illinois. The Big Ten tends to average four to six teams in the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s not why we played all year,” Hutchins said. “It's not why fifth years came back, so they could just get to play in the games and not get a chance to be considered when they've done what they're supposed to. We have kids who have stayed. I just think we need to do what's right. And the committee has got a hard job. You have to take into account that we only played each other, and we play each other two times, three times, and for eight weeks, four times. And so we didn't get a chance to go steal some games out at UCLA and LSU and play (non-conference games) on the road.”
If Michigan is made a host, Hutchins suspects it will be a challenging regional.
“Every regional is going to have more than one really good team in it,” she said. “I've never seen softball more talented, and all teams that can beat each other.”
Hutchins won’t downplay or minimize her team’s chances in the NCAA Tournament. Despite playing a Big Ten-only schedule, she knows how good the Wolverines are.
“I think we're very capable,” Hutchins said. “When you have two pitchers of our caliber and our hitting has just improved, improved, improved. We won't be one of the top hitting teams in the NCAA tournament, but with above average pitching, I think that we complement our offense with that. But again, we'll need to go into Tournament and be as offensive as we can. And we're going to need to pitch the way we're capable.”