Michigan softball ready for better playing conditions in Tampa
It’s a discussion that will not go away, at least not for those college softball teams – and baseball, for that matter – in the northern climes that must venture south the first several weeks of the season to play on fields not covered by snow and in temperatures that don’t require a parka.
Michigan softball is ranked No. 19 nationally and is 3-2 after opening the season last weekend in a tournament in Tampa, Fla. The Wolverines head back to Florida this weekend for a challenging four-games against No. 7 Oklahoma State, No. 24 Central Florida, No. 4 Florida State, and No. 21 LSU.
The Wolverines will then play tournaments in North Carolina and Kentucky the next two weekends and finally open at home against Kent State on March 12. They will have played 19 games on the road before that home series at Alumni Field.
Michigan coach Carol Hutchins is in her 38th season and has led the program to 22 Big Ten regular-season titles and a national championship in 2005.
While her current team is just setting out on its ambitious schedule, it remains irritating to her that the Wolverines must practice an outdoor spring sport indoors at Oosterbaan Fieldhouse. After all, technically, it’s winter.
“Playing in February is absurd,” Hutchins said this week on a videoconference with reporters.
She estimates the program will spend $100,000 for travel these first four weekends.
“I can't imagine basketball having all their practices in a racquetball court and then going to the game,” Hutchins said. “It's absurd. It's been absurd for a long time that the college spring sports are playing in February, and especially with over half the country in snowbelt.”
Starting the season later has been a discussion during Coaches’ Association meetings, Hutchins said, but for the warmer weather programs, why would they want to change?
“All of us northern schools are like, we don't want to come home and dig our car out of a snowbank and we got to dig to get to our field,” she said. “We get bad weather every year because it's February. February's not spring anywhere. It's nicer in the south, no doubt, but it's an unfair advantage for southern schools. It's just ridiculous. Costs us a fortune because we have to go away to play, (and) we only get to have four home weekends. So I think it's crazy. I think we're crazy.”
While this annoys Hutchins, she won’t allow the players to get hung up on this. But it often explains why sometimes a team can be slow starting. After all, the game is meant to be played outdoors and practicing indoors, while better than nothing, doesn’t offer everything.
“It matters to play on a real field where kids can be in the outfield and see live ball off live bat that doesn't have a ceiling and lights up there and you know the elements that go with it,” Hutchins said. “We were outdoors at baseball last week and the kids are hitting the ball and the wind was blowing in and we weren’t making catches and they’re like, ‘Oh, the wind.’ We have to practice in the wind. We have to practice in the sunshine and you have to be on dirt because we play on dirt and the Fieldhouse is turf.”
Michigan’s pitching is still among the nation’s best with Alex Storako and Meghan Beaubien. Storako had 13 strikeouts in a shutout of Kansas City. last Sunday. It was just one weekend, but it’s clear that Michigan's priority is finding consistency with its hitting, which was an issue last season. Michigan lost both games last Saturday, 4-0 to No. 6 Florida and 4-1 to USF.
Graduate transfer Kristina Burkhardt has a team-leading .471 batting average and had eight hits last weekend and four RBI. This is the time of year where Hutchins is working through lineup combinations to see who works where.
One weekend in, and there is no hand wringing. Scoring one run in two games last Saturday was disappointing, but no one is hitting a panic button.
“I think that we just want to hit an urgent button,” Hutchins said. “Things are urgent. They've been urgent all year. Every day, people are like, ‘Is it urgent now?’ When you walk into practice today, it's urgent. We're trying to get better today. We need to master the craft, but we can't panic because we can only take the data that we have, what we learned and what do we as coaches need to do to make adjustments?
“I've seen second weekends where we were good the first weekend and not as good the second weekend. So I'm hoping for a little in reverse here. It's always a game of adjustments, and as a coach, you're always adjusting every day.”