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UM softball carries burden of reaching high

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Sierra Romero

The Michigan softball team has had high expectations all season.

That’s what happens when your coach is the winningest in Division I softball, your program is annually considered among the nation’s best, you sell out your home stadium, and last year your team was runner-up for the national championship.

So what’s the natural progression here? A national title, of course, right?

Michigan is ranked No. 2 nationally and the highest remaining seed now that two-time defending national champion Florida is not among the final eight teams competing for the College World Series that begins Thursday at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.

The Wolverines play No. 10 seed LSU, which they eliminated from the World Series last year, in their first game Thursday at 9:30 p.m. Michigan is led by National Player of the Year Sierra Romero, and the Wolverines enter the World Series leading the country in runs per game, averaging 8.2, and are in the top five in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging.

Still, LSU is smarting from last year’s elimination by Michigan.

UM's Romero emotional about Player of the Year award

“I think our group understands the notion of playing the team that knocked us out last year, and that’s something that I think we’ll use to our advantage,” LSU coach Beth Torina told LSUSports.net.

The Tigers are 50-16 and have won 20 of their last 24 games as they make their second straight World Series appearance.

Michigan is 51-5 and is approaching this World Series with a plan to have fun while understanding the stakes — pursuing the program’s first national title since 2005.

“They’ve had high expectations all year and had to work through the burden of it,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said.

Teams set goals each season, thereby creating expectations for themselves.

That’s not where the burden comes in. The burden comes from expectations of those outside the program and those who constantly ask about finishing runner-up last season and how that changes the focus.

“It seems this year every time I do a press conference we end up talking about last year,” Hutchins told reporters during a news conference Wednesday in Oklahoma City. “The one thing that is different is every year’s different. Our kids had to realize that throughout the course of the season as everybody talked about the expectations and, boy, we came in second last year, so clearly there’s only one way to define success for this year.

“Our kids had to really work through all of that. But we lost (pitcher) Haylie Wagner and (catcher) Lauren Sweet, and those were two huge losses for us. But the key to being a great program is have young people step up.

“I think we’re a balanced team. I thought we were balanced last year. That’s our goal every year to put forth good pitching, good offense, and play good defense. When it comes down to it this time of year, regardless what kind of teams we are, we need to play good softball. We focus on not who we’re playing, but playing good softball every day.

“Our team is going to go out tomorrow night to play good softball. We know LSU is a good team because only the good teams are still playing. And now only the great teams are still playing. So we just need to play good softball and focus on the ball.”

Hutchins has said it before and she will say it again and repeatedly – winning a national title doesn’t define a team and its players. She said after her team came back to defeat Missouri last Sunday to win the Super Regional and advance to the World Series that two components help the Wolverines play their best and that’s having fun and pitch focus.

“And don’t have any other expectations,” she said. “We should expect nothing. We should expect it’s going to be really difficult because it’s been nothing but difficult. That’s the only thing they need to think about and they know it’s going to be difficult, because only the best teams are still playing. Whether you’re the best team or not it’s who’s playing the best, and we’ve been playing good softball, we’ve been playing really good softball and that bodes well for us.”

Carol Hutchins

Her players understand the concept Hutchins has drilled into them, that winning is all about hard work and preparation, but they should never, ever expect anything to be given to them.

“We’re not entitled to anything,” pitcher Megan Betsa said. “We have to work just as hard as every other team in the country to be as good as we are.”

With that in mind, Hutchins has made clear to her team that rankings mean nothing, seedings mean less, and eight teams are now playing for a national championship in a double-elimination format and anything can happen.

“It’s always up for anyone,” Hutchins said Wednesday when asked if any team could win this World Series. “The only team I ever care about is Michigan. The people who think that seeding matters, I can tell you that Florida realizes seeding doesn’t matter, and seeding has never mattered. Seeding helps put you in position to be in order in the tournament, the order that we get put in.

“The goal is always to be seeded hopefully in the top eight so you can play those games at home, but you still have to win those games. At this point of the year, I’m certain everybody would agree, everybody has tough matchups, and the field is wide open. To me it always is.”

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

TV: ESPN2

Next: Winner plays Alabama-Oklahoma winner at 9:30 p.m. Friday; loser plays Alabama-Oklahoma loser at 2:30 p.m. Saturday