Ann Arbor – A coach can never know for sure how players will mesh, who will become leaders, who will become the glue, who will set the tone.
What Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins knows now is her seven seniors are wonderfully gifted athletes and more importantly have created a team-wide chemistry she could never have predicted. The group will participate in their third Women’s College World Series in four years and second straight, having come up just short as the national champion runner-up last season.
Even the seniors, who have grown together this last handful of years, find that being on the brink of another World Series -- which begins for the second-ranked Wolverines on Thursday night in Oklahoma City when they face LSU in a first-round game -- is a breathtaking achievement.
Who could have known this group, upon arrival as freshmen in Ann Arbor, would realize this kind of success?
“I would have never guessed it,” right fielder Kelsey Susalla said Monday. “For us to make it as a senior class three out of four years to Oklahoma City is pretty awesome. We just need to take it one game at a time, one pitch at a time. The experience from last year will help us a lot. But it’s anyone’s game this year. The rankings don’t matter at this point.”
Spoken like a true senior who has listened to Hutchins. This will be the 12th World Series in which she’s coached, and she led the Wolverines to the championship in 2005 before coming oh-so-close against Florida last year. But the two-time defending national champion Gators didn’t reach the World Series this year, leaving Michigan, the nation’s second-ranked team, as the highest remaining seed in the eight-team field.
Hutchins, after losing in the final last year, said coming up short in the championship would not define the team. Winning wouldn’t either. Of course, it would commemorate and give trophy validation to all the hard work, but Hutchins knows the journey of a season is what she and the players will remember most.
She also knows how hard it is to reach a World Series, let alone win one, and with that in mind, the achievement of this senior class is remarkable.
“All their friends play college softball all over the country, and they know a lot of friends who don’t ever go to a College World Series,” Hutchins said. “My seniors, this will be their third. If they win that championship, they’re going to have to play their best at clutch times.”
The underclassmen have a deep respect for the senior class.
“We play for each other, and we LOVE our seniors,” sophomore catcher Aidan Falk said. “Our team is our team because of our seniors. They’ve given everything to this program and we want to give it back. It’s been incredible to make it this far. I think we play so much for each other and we want to have the best opportunity (the seniors) can possibly get.”
The Wolverines need look no further than Sunday’s seventh-inning comeback victory over Missouri to win the Super Regional and earn a spot in the World Series. Junior Abby Ramirez said in moments like that, it’s about winning for the seniors.
“We’re not only just playing for the team and ourselves, but a lot of times when our backs are against the wall, you want to do it for the seniors because they’ve there for us the whole season,” Ramirez said.
Trust is a big part of how this team operates, and it is something the seniors have preached all along. Their feeling is, if you can’t trust your teammate at practice, in the weight room and during a game, then you have no framework for a team.
“If you’re going to come play at Michigan, that’s us,” said senior Sierra Romero, the three-time Big Ten Player of the Year. “If you’re going to be an individual and you want to just worry about yourself and not care about anyone else, you can go play somewhere else. That’s now how we do it here.
“That’s the way we can explain it to somebody who’s not a part of the team. We have each other’s back.”
What a coach can never know when assembling a class is if chemistry will develop. Susalla said that while she couldn’t have known from Day 1 what kind of success she and her classmates would have, she was confident they would mesh.
“Our senior class has been such a good class and there are so many personalities,” Susalla said. “The friendships we have made, we’ve built a chemistry that’s part of the whole team.”
Susalla offered a breakdown of the seniors:
Center fielder Sierra Lawrence: “She’s just calm, she tells it like it is. Once you get to know her she’s really awesome. She’s one of my best friends. She says it how it is and doesn’t beat around the bush.”
Second baseman Sierra Romero: “Romo brings swag and a spark to us. You know when she goes up to bat you can just tell she’s got an attitude and personality up there and that rubs off on us. When we see her get a little feisty in the box we’re like, ‘OK, let’s do it.’”
Reserves Lauren Connell and Mary Sbonek: “L.C. and Mary are like combined. They’re like a duo in the dugout. They bring an energy in the dugout and lead us in all the cheers and building energy. They really keep us super energetic in the dugout.”
Pitcher Sara Driesenga: “Sara is like a mom for us. She leads by example. Even in this postseason she hasn’t been throwing a lot, but she’s been doing a great job when she needs to come in. She just keeps us all up in the dugout.”
Olivia Richvalsky: “Liv is one of our captains and is definitely a leader for us. She’s more of a role situation person for us, but she definitely keeps everyone engaged in the dugout. She’s always willing to learn. She’s such a sweet person.”
And Susalla on Susalla: “I just try to have fun. I stay loose in the dugout and I always want to keep talking. I don’t know if (pitcher Megan) Betsa can even hear me, but I keep yelling, “Good pitch! One at a time!’ For the most part I want to keep everyone loose and calm.”
Michigan vs. LSU
What: Michigan’s opening game in Women’s College World Series
When: 9:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, Oklahoma City
Next: Winner plays Alabama-Oklahoma winner at 9:30 p.m. Friday; loser plays Alabama-Oklahoma loser at 2:30 p.m. Saturday