No. 6 UM softball begins post-Romero era with 'great nucleus'

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Two-time Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Megan Betsa returns for Michigan.

Ann Arbor — Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins does not dwell in the past.

Hutchins is entering her 33rd season coaching the Wolverines, and this will be the 40th season for the program. The Wolverines are No. 6 in the preseason rankings — their third straight top-10 preseason ranking — and open the season Friday with five games over three days in Tampa at the USF Tournament. That includes a doubleheader to start things off.

The Wolverines are coming off a 52-7 record last fall, a Big Ten championship, and a second straight World Series appearance. They were the national championship runner-up in 2015.

But gone is decorated standout Sierra Romero, one of the best to play the game, along with Sierra Lawrence and Kelsey Susalla.

“I lose kids every year,” Hutchins said, waving toward a wall in the softball building listing all of the All-Americans from over the years. “Look at that whole board. I lost ’em all. If I dwelled on that, I mean, I know, good, they graduated, that’s always a plus.

“But we won a national championship before Romo was here, you know? We’ve been ranked in the top 20 every year for 22 years straight, our finishing ranking, which is the one I do care about, so Romo was only here for four of those, and preseason rankings are just absolutely insane. The media and the parents will be all about them, but my kids know I will cut their tongues out if they think it’s important.”

Michigan returns five starting position players and two starting pitchers, including two-time Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Megan Betsa. Faith Canfield will be the new starter at second base, replacing Romero, and sophomore Alex Sobczak will be behind the plate. Kelly Christner, one of four seniors on the roster, will be the leader in the outfield.

“We have a great nucleus,” Hutchins said. “I said goodbye (to the graduates in) June. I haven’t spent one minute focusing on them other than when I see them and we hang out. This is Team 40. What are we going to accomplish?”

What Hutchins hopes to accomplish quickly this season is finding the right lineup and fit for all the players. Tera Blanco will pitch, and when she isn’t in the circle will take over at first base and share time there with Aidan Falk, who was a catcher last season. Junior Taylor Swearingen has been “the most impressive hitter” during the preseason, Hutchins said, and she is searching for a way to work her in.

“The key is what’s our lineup going to look like and I don’t know yet,” Hutchins said. “What we see in practice isn’t necessarily what we’re going to get in games. We know that. We say we’re going to move things around.

“Some years I feel really set. Last year I felt pretty set. I don’t feel set at all. Lineups work better when they know they’re settled, they really do. We’re going to want to settle it, but I have to let that go for a while and convince them to let it go.”

A big part of Hutchins’ coaching philosophy is to let go of all the outside chatter, the preseason rankings, which she detests, and to stop thinking so mechanically about hitting or pitching. But asking them to unclutter their brains is a difficult task.

She does not want the players to get hung up on rankings, because that could lead to situations during tight games when they start to think, "We’re supposed to be better than this team. What’s happening?” Hutchins also is not a fan of the target-on-the-back concept — “who doesn’t want to beat the other team?” — or the idea that one opponent is more worthy of their attention than another.

Hutchins admires the way the Connecticut women’s basketball team plays.

“When they’re more talented, they smash the other team,” she said. “They smash them to smithereens, and occasionally they’re almost competitive with somebody, and it’s within 30. They play their game regardless. You don’t see them playing sloppy basketball ever. That is my goal. It’s hard to manage, I can say. I can do a better job. We just try to hammer that, and it is a work in progress always.

“My job is to make sure they treat the game the way I want them to treat the game and how they approach the game. I’m just trying to get them to be their best and Team 40 to be their best. Our goals aren’t different. We don’t change them.”

Twitter: @chengelis