May 30, 2016
ANN ARBOR — To truly understand what occurred at Alumni Field on Sunday, first consider that Carol Hutchins has coached 1,929 games at Michigan.
That’s 32 seasons worth of softball, meaning that Hutchins, the winningest coach in NCAA history, can probably lay claim to having actually seen everything. She’s seen amazing wins. She’s won a national title. She’s experienced a lifetime of lifetimes.
And on Sunday, standing in a locker room of wide-eyed 18-to-22-year-olds, Hutchins made this declaration:
“That was one of the best games in Michigan softball history.”
Tied 1-1 in the top of the sixth.
Down 4-1 in the bottom of the sixth.
Up 5-4 in the top of the seventh.
No one outside the U-M dugout quite believed it — not the fans and surely not Missouri — but the Wolverines stole fire from the sky to stun the Tigers with a late four-run rally to seal the program’s 12th trip to the Women’s College World Series.
It was a game that was over, then on again, and then, in a blink, part of Michigan lore.
Watching the final out bounce to U-M first baseman Tera Blanco, Sierra Romero was still trying to figure out what just happened. Perhaps the greatest player in U-M history, the senior just followed the crowd and celebrated.
Later, amid a cramped celebration outside U-M’s Shepherd Softball Center, she found a fleeting moment of perspective.
“It hasn’t even sunk in yet that that was my last game on Alumni Field in a Michigan jersey,” Romero said. “That was an amazing game.”
It was amazing when Hutchins pulled star pitcher Megan Betsa for backup Sara Driesenga in the sixth, only to see the reliever allow a three-run home run to right field.
It was amazing when Lindsay Montemarano led off the top-half of the next inning with a simple infield pop-up. Missouri’s Sammi Fagan, opting not to wear sunglasses, lost the ball in the afternoon glare. It hit her in the chest and was ruled a single.
It was amazing when Romero came to bat soon after with the bases loaded, a three-run deficit, and a Hollywood script in her hands. She said later that she didn’t think about the possibility of a game-winning grand slam, but everyone else sure as hell did. Romero settled for a sacrifice fly.
It was amazing when Kelly Christner, who languished for much of the year batting .100 points lower than last season, smacked an RBI single to make it 4-3.
It was amazing when Kelsey Susalla, who went five games and 17 at bats since her last RBI, broke out of the slump with a double to left-center, tying the game 5-5.
It was amazing when student trainer Emily Bedy was sent to the training room to tell Betsa — sitting in an ice bath to ease a sore back in order to pitch in the afternoon’s if-necessary elimination game — to get dressed and get back in the dugout to throw the bottom of the seventh.
It was amazing when the Alumni Field crowd went into hysterics as a pitch to Tera Blanco sailed high, bringing home Christner from third for the go-ahead run. It could have potentially been ruled a foul tip, but the umpire ruled it a live ball.
It was amazing, 10 minutes later, when Betsa allowed a Missouri runner to reach third with one out. Pitching through back soreness, she promptly stranded that would-be tying run with a strikeout and a forced ground out.
It was all amazing, except it wasn’t.
Now 51-5 on the season and the highest-remaining seed in the WCWS, Michigan isn’t a team reliant on luck. It’s a great team and it’s no coincidence when great teams do great things.
“We never had a doubt,” Romero said.
That confidence is born from program roots that grow deep and flower every summer. This year will mark the Wolverines’ third trip to the WCWS in four years and the 12th in the 39 years that Michigan has fielded a team.
“For everyone out there who thinks we should always be (in the World Series),” Hutchins said of her team’s annual expectations, “if it were so easy, everyone would go.”
Everyone doesn’t get there because everyone doesn’t stand on such balanced footing. Consider that after clinching a berth in the World Series, Michigan’s postgame press conference featured Montemarano, who also homered in the second inning, along with Betsa and Susalla.
Romero and Sierra Lawrence, the team’s two top-flight All-American candidates, didn’t shoulder all the weight. The played supporting roles in a show bigger than themselves.
The rest of the lineup produced seven hits, three RBIs, four runs scored and flawless defense.
“One great player or two great players don’t make a program as great as ours has been for the last two years,” Hutchins said. “It’s because they’re surrounded by such great players and such great people and such great Michigan women.”
And now those Michigan women are going to back to Oklahoma City, site of last year’s runner-up finish to Florida. They’ll face 10th-seeded LSU (50-16) to open the WCWS, facing a Tigers team coming off a Super Regional win over James Madison.
On the outside, the goal will be for the Wolverines to claim a second national title in program history, joining the banner from 2005.
On the inside, though, the goal will be to play another game and hit another pitch.
For a team coming off one of the greatest games in program history, nothing will change.
“Our culture is our strength — I believe that,” Hutchins said. “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. But culture is what makes everybody accountable and holds the standards high.”
And therein lies how days like Sunday are possible.
For Michigan softball, the standard is amazing.
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