Michigan softball players Tera Blanco, left, and Aidan Falk talk about the team's mindset heading into the NCAA Tournament. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Michigan senior first baseman Tera Blanco is one of those rare players that coach Carol Hutchins can talk to about strategy and discuss changes needed to the lineup.
Blanco also is an emotional leader for the 17th-ranked Wolverines (43-11), who play their first NCAA Tournament game Friday against Notre Dame in the Lexington, Kentucky Regional. The teams split a series earlier in the season.
The winner of the regional moves on to the Super Regional next weekend in Eugene, Ore.
Blanco is tied for third among Michigan’s all-time leaders in runs batted in with 201 and is 18 shy of second. Michigan’s defense has been a significant key for the Wolverines this season as UM ranks second nationally with a team .985 fielding percentage, just .004 behind Oklahoma. Blanco has a 1.000 fielding percentage.
“It’s been one of her best years,” Hutchins said of Blanco. “She’s been the most coachable and approachable. She gets a lot of things. I can often go to her and pick her brain, whether it’s lineup tweaks — I made a lineup tweak last year and she came to me, ‘Oh, I love that.’ She thinks the game.
“She’s a key player, and we had a little conversation (Tuesday) that we need her to stay that focus forward. If you’re caught up in what’s not going so well at the moment, your body follows your mind. I’m trying to convince them they’ve got to stay focus forward and we’ve got to create our own endorphins so our body will follow that.”
Having Blanco maintain that “focus forward” is vital for a team that feeds off each other. Hutchins has spoken recently of the need for the team’s hitting to come around and said that once one player gets hot, it will become “contagious."
She said the same goes for the enthusiasm the players play with during the game, and that’s where Blanco is relied on in many ways.
“It’s true, she is (our emotional leader), so when her emotions aren’t where they need her to be — she’s our leader,” Hutchins said. “It’s the whole contagious thing.”
Blanco, who has a team-best 10 home runs this season and a .659 slugging percentage, has always been a leader for the Wolverines.
“It’s kind of my personality outside of softball too,” Blanco said. “I just kind of take matters into my own hands. I had an older sister growing up, and she kind of taught me the ropes of everything. We kind of have the same personality.”
Teammate and captain Aidan Falk praised Blanco’s leadership and said she also provides encouragement when needed and tough love.
“That’s what I’ve loved about playing with Tera, she’s a great leader, and I learned a lot from her on the field, which is pretty great,” Falk said. “We’ve been part of the lineup together for four years. If one of us is stinking, more likely me than her, she always gives me a pat on the back like, ‘You’re OK, you’re going to do fine.’
“Having her there to take everybody under her wing, especially younger players, it’s really nice, because it’s like having a coach that’s not necessarily a coach but can relate to you on an even-keeled level. It’s been wonderful to have her. She puts great leadership on the field and that’s what you need. You need personality and a voice on the field, and that’s what she does for us.”
Blanco also pitches. While Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Pitcher of the Year Meghan Beaubien leads the way with a 32-4 record — her 32 wins leads the nation —Sarah Schaefer is 24-5 and Blanco is 9-4.
Hutchins said that while Beaubien will be the workhorse, after watching the Big Ten Tournament last weekend, she saw that all the teams had to go deep into their pitching.
“Sometimes we have to convince Tera, we just need you to do what you do and not compare yourself to Meghan or any other pitchers,” Hutchins said. “We’re going to need some help in the circle. We know Meghan is going to carry a large load, but our bullpen, in the postseason, I watched the Big Ten finals, everybody got into their bullpens to get through the tournament just to get through the first two days.
“We need to count on Tera to give us what she’s capable of and just be effective. That’s when she’s her best, and our game plan will be to try to win one inning. Indiana was her best outing of the year. If we can get her that mentality, that’s our best hope.”
Pitching and playing first. That’s what Blanco does, and that’s what Michigan will need her to do beginning with the Notre Dame game.
“Just keep my leadership up and do what I do,” she said.
Game 1: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 Notre Dame, noon (ESPN2)
Game 2: No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 4 Illinois-Chicago, 2:30 p.m.
Game 3: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, noon
Game 4: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 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, noon
Game 7 (if necessary): Game 6 winner vs. Game 6 loser, 2:30 p.m.