Big 10

Column: Never quite itself at the WCWS, Michigan softball falls under the weight

June 5, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY — While Michigan’s trip to the Women’s College World Series officially careened to an end Sunday against Florida State, the trip probably ended well before that.

There were signs.

Back on Saturday night, the strings were pulled taut on a U-M softball team that’s long been loaded with both talent and pressure. In the seventh inning against Oklahoma, the Wolverines were trying to rally from a four-run deficit.

With one run across, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins pulled aside Olivia Richvalsky on third base. The lights were bright at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium and the crowd of 8,964 stirred. A mix of tension and humidity hung low. Making eye contact with Richvalsky, Hutchins stressed that she not get picked off at third base. Richvalsky nodded back.

Then, over Richvalsky’s shoulder, Hutchins caught a glimpse of Sydney Romero. The Oklahoma third baseman, and sister of Michigan star Sierra Romero, smiled back. She bounced around and offered a spirited nod, as if saying, “Yep, we’re going to try to pick you off.”

Romero was soaking up the moment.

Michigan wasn’t.

“We didn’t play free like that, no question,” Hutchins said Sunday, reflecting as her players signed autographs in a line leading to the team bus for a final ride of the 2016 season. “They were free and happy.”

Michigan lost that game to Oklahoma, 7-5, and followed it Sunday with a loss to Florida State, 1-0.

Just like that, in the span of about 15 hours, it was all over. In a year constantly tethered to expectations — Michigan was tasked with returning to the WCWS championship round to avenge last year’s loss in the national title series — the strain and stress seemed to final serve as a tripwire.

The Wolverines never looked loose in Oklahoma City.

“I think we made it too big,” Hutchins said. “You can say that we put too much pressure on ourselves and we were tight. We just weren’t Michigan softball.”

That was made painfully clear Sunday.

The same team that entered the WCWS leading the nation in scoring (8.2 runs per game) and team on-base percentage (.463) was shut out on three hits. Just five players reached base.

Florida State pitcher Jessica Burroughs stuffed the Wolverines in a closet. Cleanup hitter Kelsey Susalla, who went 0-for-3, said the ACC Pitcher of the Year was “just mixing it around in the strike zone and we chased a couple pitches.”

This wasn’t new, though. In three games against LSU, Oklahoma and Florida State — and even dating back to last weekend’s Super Regional title against Missouri — Michigan’s bats were not the same. Call it nerves. Call it better opposing pitching. Call it whatever. The production wasn’t what the Wolverines needed.

Question is, why?

“I never felt that we had the weight on the world on us and I didn’t want them to feel that way because they often reflect me,” Hutchins said. “But I think there are always other people that influence them. A lot of people were in their ears all year. ‘You gotta get there. You gotta get there.’ That’s a terrible thing. And that’s why we don’t coach that way. We talk about taking it pitch-by-pitch and enjoying the opportunity.”

No one enjoyed the ending.

Michigan’s seven-player senior class, headlined by All-Americans Sierra Lawrence and Sierra Romero, won 210 games, a four-year record for the program. They reached the WCWS in three of four years. They did everything except win a national title.

If there was too much pressure for Michigan to counter, it rested most dramatically on those senior shoulders. Romero and Lawrence combined to go 0-for-5 from the plate Sunday and 3-for-16 in the WCWS. Two of the finest players in the country, they combined for one RBI this weekend.

With her eyeblack streaked by tears after the loss, Romero, said: “Playing for Hutch and Team 39 this year has been amazing. There’s no other place I’d rather be.”

Even with the tight turnaround from Saturday evening’s loss to Oklahoma, the Wolverines tried to manufacture some positive energy.

According to Hutchins, the team was in “attack mode” on the Sunday morning bus ride to the stadium. Romero picked the music. The bus bounced from the downtown Sheraton hotel out to the stadium on the northside of town.

“That was as much fun as I’ve had,” Hutchins said. “We were getting it going. No rules.”

But then the bus arrived and, perhaps the gravity of the moment returned. Those good vibes turned rigid.

“We didn’t carry that energy into the dugout,” Hutchins said. “I can’t explain it.”

Pitcher Megan Betsa did her part. Bouncing back — despite a sore back — from a rough outing against Oklahoma, the junior dealt a one-hit, one-run performance. She gave her team a chance to win. The only run allowed came on a wild pitch with the bases loaded in the third inning.

“It was supposed to be a changeup and it was just a little too much in the dirt, and it got past Aidan (Falk),” Betsa said. “I gave up too many free bases in that inning and it hurt me.”

Still, Betsa (28-5) matched Burroughs (29-5) and Michigan got the pitching performance it needed.

“Megan kept getting better and better and they were as befuddled as we were,” Hutchins said. “We just needed to find a way to scratch our a run.”

They didn’t.

And now, even though it looked like a different Michigan team in Oklahoma City, the same Wolverines are going home.

“I definitely don’t think we were ourselves,” Hutchins said. “Whether we were tight, I don’t know. We just didn’t get it done.”

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