Ann Arbor — For all the All-Americans and Big Ten players of the year Carol Hutchins has worked with as Michigan softball coach, the unsung players, those who arrived to tirelessly practice in mostly behind-the-scenes roles have often been the most rewarding to watch grow.
Kelsey Susalla from Garden City was that player a few years ago who elevated herself into a game-changing player her final two seasons, 2015 and 2016.
Junior catcher Katie Alexander was a three-year captain at Saline, and a two-time Michigan All-State selection. She wanted to attend Michigan and play for Hutchins. It was the only team she wanted to be part of, so Alexander arrived as a bullpen catcher.
“Remember Kelsey Susalla? This is the next Kelsey Susalla story,” Hutchins said this week. "She came here to be the bullpen catcher. And then ‘she’s pretty good. She’s a pretty good catcher.’ Her offense has been a constant work in progress from the get-go. And she’s been so coachable. She’s one of the kids who likes when I tinker with her. Some of the kids can’t stand when I tinker with them."
Michigan (43-10) is the Big Ten regular-season champion and opens Big Ten Tournament play Friday in Madison, Wisc. The Wolverines have won 37 of their last 41 games.
Alexander has had a breakout season for the top-seeded Wolverines and this week was named All-Big Ten second team. She batted .351 in Big Ten play with eight extra-base hits and 11 runs batted in. She has a .994 fielding percentage at catcher and caught two no-hitters during Big Ten play this season.
“Katie has established herself as a great catcher,” Hutchins, named the Big Ten coach of the Year, said. “She’s throwing people out. This is the difference in a kid who goes from being, ‘I don’t think I’m that good,’ to ‘I’m really confident. I’m really good.’
“She’s not a whole lot better physically, but mentally she’s gone from a zero to a 10 in confidence. I’m extremely excited she was just named All-Big Ten. These are kids who have no expectations and work hard to help us. She’s always trying hard to help us. The concern then is that they become the kid who has expectations, ‘I’m supposed to be good, I’m supposed to be All-Big Ten’, and we’ve got to help them manage.”
Alexander has always been eager to learn and improve. While she has always felt confident in her ability as a catcher, she has never hesitated to ask Hutchins for advice on hitting.
“She’s just really responded,” Hutchins said. “She’s been an open cup. Open for information.”
With Hutchins’ help, Alexander has made herself more well-rounded as a defensive and offensive threat.
“I think this year I wasn’t questioning myself at the plate, either,” Alexander said. “I was just saying, ‘I’m good enough.’ And coming in with Hutch and her giving me confidence on reps and just doing it with her so often that I can do it in a game.”
Alexander also credited working with UM athletic counselor Emily Klueh as another reason why she was able to take her game to a new level this season.
“I’ve had an amazing year with her,” Alexander said. “I’ve been meeting with her so often. I really embraced meeting with her and taking what she says to heart and really just trying to do it.”
The team watched “Bull Durham” and Alexander hangs on one line — you throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball. For her, it has been about simplifying her approach to the basics and not allowing overthinking or even thinking enter into the equation.
“A lot of times the game can get kind of mental so making sure when it does seem like that to bring it back down to, ‘This is just a game. You love to do this. Have fun when you do this,’” she said.
That the former bullpen pitcher has had success this year hasn’t surprised her teammates, even one of the newest, ace Meghan Beaubien. Beaubien was named the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year and Pitcher of the Year.
“Katie’s awesome,” Beaubien said. “She’s one of the hardest working people you’ll ever meet. She just gives everything she has every single day. She has such a great attitude. She always has your back. She gives everything she has to this team. She’s so genuinely grateful for everything we get. It’s really inspiring to see that. It’s a great attitude.”
Alexander has never been about individual honors. Her focus has always been the team.
“Every year at the end of the season we have a meeting with the coaches and discuss goals and talk with them and see where you are, where they are,” she said. “I’ve always said I want to do my best for Michigan. I’ve never been an individual player.
“They said, ‘What are some are your goals? Do you want to be All-Big Ten? I think that’s a good goal.’ Every day I wasn’t thinking, ‘I want to be All-Big Ten.’ I still was thinking I want to do what I can for my team and just be relaxed. I worked with Hutch on being relaxed all season and just knowing I can do. My confidence was higher, and I felt more comfortable in the catching role and just embracing it and not caring if I failed because softball is a game of ups and downs.”
Michigan State 4, Nebraska 3: Winning pitcher Bridgette Rainey held Nebraska to a single hit over her final four innings as Michigan State opened its Big Ten tournament with a victory.
First baseman Kelcey Carrasco and shortstop Caitie Ladd both smacked home runs. Ladd also had a double, as did left fielder Ebonee Echols, who also had two hits.
BIG TEN TOURNAMENT
At Madison, Wis.; all games on BTN
No. 7 Wisconsin 8, No. 10 Purdue 0
No. 6 Illinois 5, No. 11 Maryland 3
No. 8 Michigan State 4, No. 9 Nebraska 3
No. 12 Iowa 5, No. 5 Ohio State 1
No. 2 Minnesota vs. Wisconsin, noon
No. 3 Indiana vs. Illinois, 2:30 p.m.
No. 1 Michigan vs. Michigan State, 5:30 p.m.
No. 4 Northwestern vs. Iowa, 8 p.m.
Minnesota-Wisconsin winner vs. Indiana-Illinois winner, 2 p.m.
Michigan-Michigan State winner vs. Northwestern-Iowa winner, 4:30 p.m.
Semifinal winners, 7 p.m.