Michigan’s Connell the essence of an unsung hero
Ann Arbor – Behind every great pitching staff is a bullpen catcher – a tireless, behind-the-scenes worker, the ultimate self-sacrificing team player whose efforts can provide that fine-line difference as teams pursue championships.
Lauren Connell has been a bullpen catcher for the Michigan softball team during her four years, and while she embodies all of those qualities, she is anything but behind-the-scenes.
Connell, from West Lafayette, Ind., has a vibrant personality that has been on display the last two seasons in her popular, cleverly-written blog, “Inside Pitch with LC” on MGoBlue.com. And along with teammate Tera Blanco, Connell enthusiastically leads the late-game wave at Alumni Field, sometimes on the road and last year during every Michigan game in the Women’s College World Series.
She motivates the Wolverines’ pitchers, giving them encouragement when needed and also constructive criticism, and she will help Michigan prepare this week for the Big Ten tournament – the Wolverines have won nine-straight Big Ten regular-season titles – at Penn State and then the NCAA tournament, which begins May 20.
“You see the nine players on the field, they’re the ones swinging at pitches and fielding the ground balls, but it really does take all 24 of us to make the team successful,” said Connell, who has had a handful of at-bats during her career, including Sunday against Rutgers in Michigan’s final regular-season game. “For me, realizing how integral my role is off the field as a leader, someone in the dugout, someone to promote the program, is a huge role and a huge responsibility.
“People don’t realize that off the field that you have that big of a responsibility and that much impact on a team’s success, but you really do. It’s something that’s been really special to me over the past four years to be a part of.”
Connell works with the pitchers every practice and then visits the cold tub as a welcome relief for her knees. She gives feedback constantly, and when assistant coach Jennifer Brundage needs input on the pitchers, she often relies on Connell’s take.
“I consider myself part of the pitching staff,” Connell said. “My job is to make them perform as well as they can. Coming out of high school no one desires to be a bullpen catcher, but it’s a role that I’ve really embraced, and I want to be the best I can be in that role. It’s something I take pride in doing and something I really enjoy doing.”
Pitcher Megan Betsa appreciated that before a recent practice, the pitchers had extra running and Connell, who didn’t need to run, joined in.
“She’s a good teammate and a good team leader and that’s something we always talk about being -- those two things -- and providing endless energy, and she does all that really well,” Betsa said. “She’s definitely someone I want to warm me up because she provides that feedback, and in the dugout, she is so spirited. She is the voice of the dugout.”
During Connell’s first season, Brundage would walk into post-practice meetings with the staff and her ears would be ringing. Connell is the voice of the dugout now, but she was definitely the voice of the bullpen.
“I would talk to the other coaches about how bad my ears hurt because (Connell) talked the entire time and there would be times I had to tell her, ‘OK, time to be quiet, we need to pitch now,’” Brundage said, smiling at the memory. “I think it was a lot of nervous energy. She came back her sophomore year and within the first two weeks of the season I remember coming in and saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, LC is a different person.’ She figured it out when it wasn’t necessary (to talk) and when it was.
“She’s grown up and made our pitchers better. She knows what to look for with them, she holds them accountable when they’re perhaps maybe not working as hard as they should, and that’s vital. Or if she’s out warming one of them up during a game and I can’t be out there, I rely on her input when they come in and ask her if the pitcher’s ready to go, how does she look, what does she need, and LC sometimes has to be the bad guy and be completely honest because she knows it’s what’s best for the team. She’s done it well.”
Michigan coach Carol Hutchins, who led the Wolverines to a national championship runner-up finish last season, knows better than most that having unsung players like Connell are key to success.
“I think back to when (pitcher) Jenny Ritter was in school and of course she went from good to great and we won the national championship and our bullpen catcher then, Jennifer Kreinbrink, being one of our mainstays, she was as proud as you could be. She had such a part in that.
“Lauren Connell has been in this bullpen for four years. She takes enormous pride in the fact she knows she’s never going to go into a meaningful game, but she knows any success we have, she’s a part of it. She embraces it, and she relishes it, and to me it’s part of what I think is so special about her. It’s an important role. It’s not the same role as Romo (Sierra Romero) or Betsa, but we can’t do it without players like her. You can’t go out there with just nine people and win.”
Connell, an avid reader and writer, woke up at 4 a.m. before last season with an idea – a blog!
She recently graduated from Michigan with a degree in communications and already has a job lined up in Ft. Myers, Fla., as an account manager for Gartner, but she has always enjoyed writing.
Hutchins was lukewarm on the idea when it was first presented.
“And then I started reading them – I didn’t realize what a good writer she is,” Hutchins said. “Love it. She has the pulse of our team.”
“At first I thought it would just be parents and some of the diehard fans,” Connell said of her blog readership. “I never realized how many people would end up reading them. People from my hometown read them, and they get shares and shares and shares, and I never realized how big it would be. I always read the comments on Facebook and people come up to me at games and on the street and they’ll say, ‘Oh my gosh, I love your blog. I had no idea about some of those things about the program.’ It’s been really cool.”The blogs now run every Monday during the season and throughout the postseason and offer amusing takes on the team and the players to give insight for fans.
During a game last season at Minnesota, Connell and Blanco decided their teammates needed inspiration. The started doing the wave just for the dugout.
“Then we saw some of the parents behind us in the stands were doing it, so we started doing it at games and the whole stands got into it, and we were just like, ‘No way, that’s crazy.’ Doing It at Alumni Field and watching throngs of fans do the wave is the craziest,” Connell said.
They start with the regular wave, then the slow wave and finish with the fast wave.
“And by that time we’re getting kicked off the field because there’s a pitch being thrown,” Connell said. “We try to do it as much as we can. It usually gets the coaches and the players a little lightened up. It helps relax the mood, and the fans love it. I’ve had people come up to me like, ‘The fans are begging for the wave, can you start it?’”
Getting the wave going on the big stage at the World Series in Oklahoma City was a thrill.
“We were so excited,” she said. “I was like, ‘Either we’re really going to look dumb, or we’re going to look really cool.’”
Hutchins beams as she talks about Connell and what she represents for the team. Sure, the blog is a fun read and the wave has become a mainstay, but it is the team-first approach that separates Connell.
“She embraces it, and I am as proud of that as I am of any All-American. I mean that sincerely,” Hutchins said. “Those kids warm my heart. We have our All-Americans up on the wall, but on my own personal wall of fame, there’s a lot of kids who are selfless. There’s no other word to call it.”
BIG TEN TOURNAMENT
At Beard Field, Penn State
All games on BTN
Game 1: No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 11 Rutgers, noon
Game 2: No. 7 Illinois vs. No. 10 Michigan State, 2:30 p.m.
Game 3: No. 5 Nebraska vs. No. 12 Purdue, 5:30 p.m.
Game 4: No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 9 Indiana, 8 p.m.
Game 5: No. 3 Northwestern vs. Ohio State-Rutgers winner, noon
Game 6: No. 2 Minnesota vs. Illinois-Michigan State winner, 2:30 p.m.
Game 7: No. 4 Penn State vs. Nebraska-Purdue winner, 5:30 p.m.
Game 8: No. 1 Michigan vs. Wisconsin-Indiana winner, 8 p.m.
Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 1 p.m.
Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 3:30 p.m.
Semifinal winners, 6:30 p.m.