Ann Arbor — Michigan is among the favorites to win the national championship, and the Wolverines took their first step toward that goal with a dominating victory in their first game of the NCAA Regionals.
Michigan, bolstered by strong pitching from starter Megan Betsa and productive batting, routed Valparaiso, 8-0, in five innings at Alumni Field on Friday night in the NCAA Regional. The Wolverines entered the game leading the nation in scoring (8.41 average).
The second-ranked Wolverines (47-5) will face Mid-American Conference champion Miami (Ohio), which defeated Notre Dame, 3-2, in the first regional game, at noon Saturday. The game will be televised by BTN.
Betsa, who leads the nation with 11.5 strikeouts per seven innings, struck out the first three Valparaiso players and seven of the first nine.
She finished with nine strikeouts and allowed one hit, a bunt by Taylor Lawson in the fourth inning.
“I just felt I had a good warm-up, everything was working,” Betsa said. “My curve looked really good today which is something I struggled to get going the past few weekends. I think that was a good indicator I was ready to play.”
The Wolverines took a quick lead when Big Ten Player of the Year Sierra Romero, a finalist for National Player of the Year, homered for the 18th time this season, for a 1-0 lead after the first inning. She was 2-for-2 in the game with two RBIs.
“Any time you win a game in the NCAA Tournament it’s a good win,” UM coach Carol Hutchins said. “I told the kids in the locker room that of every NCAA Tournament I’ve ever been in with my teams, the first game Friday night is always nervy. It’s opening night, and the stakes are high. I thought we might have had a few nerves, but we got it going. Megan did a fantastic job for us, and of course Romo was just Romo.”
Valparaiso pitcher Taylor Weissenhofer held Michigan hitless in the third and fourth innings, but the Wolverines scored five in the fifth inning, including two runs walked in by relief pitcher Ashlyn Montgomery.
“I thought we got a little frustrated for a bit, and we got a little better.” Hutchins said, referring to early game pop-ups. “We pushed through it and I thought we played good softball. We’re going to need to play good softball to advance.”
It was exactly the type of game the Wolverines needed coming off a disappointing 10th-inning loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten championship final last week, as they seek their first national championship since 2005.
“That was a long time ago,” Hutchins said of rebounding from the Big Ten title game loss. “We just have to fight. At this point of the year, whatever we want, we are going to have to fight for. We put that behind us. I didn’t think we played particularly well, and you’re not going to go far in a tournament without playing well.
Michigan star Sierra Romero talks about the Wolverines rebounding from their loss in the Big Ten tournament championship game.
“You don’t always have to play perfect, but you’re going to have to play good softball. We try to focus always on playing good softball. I thought we played good softball tonight.”
Romero said the loss to Minnesota served as a reminder to the Wolverines that they should never overthink and overstress and just play.
“It just proves you have to play good softball all the time,” Romero said. “Certain errors will lead to runs and you start to think, ‘What if I did this or I did that?’
“It was a reminder that you need to just see ball, hit ball. Keep it simple instead of pressing to get hits or runs or make outs. I think that was kind of a little wakeup call.”
Romero, who already has career NCAA records for runs (296) and grand slams (11), is now alone in fourth on the career RBI list with 301, adding the two against Valpo. The record is 328.
Aidan Falk and Lindsay Montemarano each had two RBIs.
Hutchins discusses the team's NCAA tournament victory over Valpo
Michigan built a 3-0 lead by the end of the second when Montemarano doubled to score Kelly Christner, and Abby Ramirez singled in Montemarano.
Michigan’s lead swelled in the fifth inning after Romero singled in Abby Ramirez and Aidan Falk had a two-run single to increase the Wolverines’ advantage to 6-0. Valparaiso pitcher Ashlyn Montgomery then walked in a run.
Valparaiso (18-33) was the sixth seed in the Horizon League championship, and earned the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament after beating the third-, second- and top-seeded teams in the conference tournament.
The Crusaders, who opened the season losing their first 11 games, are now 0-5 against the Wolverines. The teams last met in the 2013 NCAA Regional also in Ann Arbor, with Michigan winning 5-0.
Hutchins said she doesn’t concern herself with how the Wolverines might match up with Miami (Ohio). It’s simply all about the Wolverines playing their game without worrying about anything else.
“This is the thing, it’s a game,” Hutchins said. “A game is a game. I don’t really look at the matchups so to speak. We’re going to try to hit their pitcher, they’re going to try to hit our pitcher. We’re just going to try to play the game of softball.”
ANN ARBOR REGIONAL
Where: Alumni Field, Wilpon Complex
Tickets: The weekend is sold out.
Parking: Free parking is available in several lots near the Wilpon Complex.
Game 1: Miami 3, Notre Dame 2
Game 2: Michigan 8, Valparaiso 0 (5 innings)
Game 3: Miami vs. Michigan, noon (BTN)
Game 4: Notre Dame vs. Valparaiso, 2:30 p.m.
Game 5: Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 winner, 5 p.m.
Game 6: Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 2 p.m. (BTN)
Game 7 (if necessary): Game 6 winner vs. Game 6 loser, 4:30 p.m. (BTN)