Ann Arbor — Spirit comes in all shapes and forms, from the behemoths in the big stadiums to the less-renowned who work just as hard on the smaller fields next door. The scope may differ, but the fight is no less compelling.
If you needed a reminder, you’d have found it Sunday at Alumni Field, where Michigan’s softball team scrapped out a victory and earned another memorable trip. Michigan edged Missouri 5-4 by scoring four runs in top of the seventh (and final) inning, and landed in the Women’s College World Series for the second straight year.
This is different, although not in the historical sense because Carol Hutchins’ powerhouse program will make its 12th World Series appearance in her 32 seasons. It’s different and dramatic enough that Hutchins wept afterward, calling it “one of the very greatest victories ever in the history of Michigan softball.”
“This team has fought really hard, and usually they fight themselves first,” Hutchins said. “They’ve had high expectations all year and had to work through the burden of it. I’m looking forward to getting to Oklahoma City so we can finally just enjoy playing. I’m so proud. I haven’t cried like this after a win since we won the national championship (in 2005).”
There are all sorts of gaudy statistics and specifics, but this is the main thing you need to know about these Wolverines: They have a champion’s pedigree and an underdog’s mentality, and they just might be the best team in the country, led by the best player, Sierra Romero.
Don’t ask me, just look at the seeds. Michigan (51-5) is No. 2, and No. 1 Florida failed to reach the eight-team World Series. The Wolverines lost in the championship game last year to the Gators, but would appear to be the new presumptive favorite, opening against LSU on Thursday. The thing is, they don’t feel or act like it, and as they trailed 4-1 Sunday — a loss would’ve forced a decisive third game 30 minutes later — they didn’t necessarily look like it.
Down but not out
But competitive spirit isn’t limited by size or gender, and at a packed 2,500-seat ballpark, snug between Schembechler Hall and the Big House, you saw the essence of it. The Wolverines won the first game Saturday, 5-3, with spectacular defense. This was an even tougher battle, and after Rylee Pierce slugged a three-run homer in the sixth off reliever Sara Driesenga to put Missouri on top 4-1, it looked dire.
When the comeback began, Michigan star pitcher Megan Betsa was soaking in the locker room ice tub, trying to loosen muscles in her back. When the first batter in the seventh, Lindsay Montemarano, popped up meekly, it looked worse. But shortstop Sami Fagan lost it in the sun and the ball bounced off her face, and suddenly the scramble was on.
With the bases loaded, Romero lofted a sacrifice fly to make it 4-2 with two outs. Kelly Christner slapped a single to right to slice it to 4-3, and stepping to the plate at the key moment was struggling cleanup hitter Kelsey Susalla, with one hit in her previous 15 at-bats. Hutchins hadn’t dropped her in the order to show confidence, and the faith paid off. Susalla drilled a double to tie the game, and you probably could’ve heard the crowd’s roar all the way to the Big House.
Michigan coach Carol Hutchins on the expectations the team felt all season.
The next batter, Tera Blanco, dodged an inside pitch that got away from the catcher, allowing Christner to race from third for the lead run. There was still the little matter of the bottom of the seventh, and after Driesenga hit the leadoff hitter, Betsa trotted in.
“Hutch told me I wasn’t going back in unless the game got tied,” Betsa said. “So as soon as we scored that run, I jumped out of the cold tub and put my clothes on and came back out. You can never count this team out.”
When Betsa induced Amanda Sanchez to ground out to end the game, it was hard to tell who was more excited, the fans or the players. Or Hutchins.
While the players leapt among themselves in the center of the diamond, Hutchins stood to the side and watched. And then, after the handshake line, she joined her team in a celebratory dance circle, everyone kicking their legs as they cheered.
“It’s really special to go to the World Series, and for all those people that think we’re supposed to go, if it was so easy, everybody would go,” Hutchins said. “Our culture is our strength. I believe that. Our culture is more important to me than being able to hit the ball and pitch the ball, although you need a little bit of that. Culture is what makes everybody accountable.”
It’s made Michigan softball a dynasty, with nine straight Big Ten titles, and Hutchins the winningest coach in NCAA softball history. The Wolverines may do it without the trappings of big-time athletics, but they certainly don’t do it in seclusion. They pack Alumni Field almost every game, and the regionals and World Series are all over ESPN.
Scales are relative, but expectations are not. You want to be the best in your sport — and have fun doing it — and the battle for balance never ends.
“The expectations are something we’ve fought all year, especially myself,” said Betsa, a junior who’s 27-3 this season. “Just coming up short last year, everybody’s saying, ‘OK, you’re gonna get another chance, you’re gonna be back, don’t worry.’ We’re not entitled to anything. We have a target on our back because we’re Michigan and we’re ranked No. 2 and everybody wants to beat us.”
It takes everything — talent and culture and support — to build a program as successful as this. Women’s softball long has been the domain of teams from the South and the West, but now Michigan knocks again. And in any venue, any way you view it, there’s nothing better than the spirit of the fight.