May 22, 2016
ANN ARBOR — As Sunday afternoon crept along, the thought started to fester that perhaps Notre Dame could hang with No. 2-ranked Michigan. Perhaps, it seemed, the Fighting Irish could gut-out a win and force the Wolverines into a late-day, if-necessary rematch.
But here is the thing about Michigan softball: At some point, the bats will get going and the runs will start coming.
In Sunday’s NCAA Ann Arbor Regional matchup at Alumni Field, that was proven again in the fifth. After puttering along offensively, the Wolverines broke through with back-to-back two-run singles by sophomore Aidan Falk and junior Lindsay Montemarano and finally stamped out the Fighting Irish.
Behind that burst of offense and another victory by pitcher Megan Betsa, Michigan claimed a 6-2 win and yet another NCAA Regional championship. Solo home runs by Sierra Romero and Sierra Lawrence in the first and the third innings got the Wolverines started.
This year’s regional title, the 18th in program history — all coming under head coach Carol Hutchins — came via three wins over Valparaiso, Miami (Ohio) and the Irish. It marks U-M’s fifth straight regional championship and 12th in the last 13 years.
Following a sold-out weekend at Alumni Field for the regional, the Wolverines will likely stick around town next week. They’ll face No. 15 seed Missouri (42-14) in the best-of-three Super Regionals for a shot at the program’s 12th Women’s World Series appearance.
Missouri was entirely dominant in hosting this past weekend’s NCAA Columbia Regional. Three straight run-ruled, shutout victories were recorded by a combined score of 26-0.
Michigan and Missouri met earlier this season in the Judi Garman Classic. The Wolverines won 13-0 in five innings on March 3 behind seven strikeouts from Betsa and four RBIs by Romero.
Since then, Missouri went on to finish sixth in the SEC, posting a 14-10 record in college softball’s top conference.
Michigan’s win on Sunday came despite Betsa finally showing some cracks in the armor. After throwing 10 scoreless innings against Valpo and Miami, the junior allowed two runs on eight hits against Notre Dame.
It could have been worse, but Betsa ended a fourth-inning threat by the Irish with back-to-back strikeouts. One inning later, U-M right fielder Kelsey Susalla ended another threat by throwing out Notre Dame’s Ali Wester at home for out No. 3.
Betsa (26-3) ended the day with nine strikeouts and no walks allowed.
The Wolverines’ break-out fifth inning, the day’s difference-maker, began with a game-changing mistake.
Notre Dame pitcher Rachel Nasland (16-5) began the inning by forcing Romero, a national player of the year candidate, into a ground out in front of the plate. What was a coup turned into a calamity. Nasland under-threw the ball to first, allowing Romero to reach safely.
Kelly Christner followed with a bunt single, conjuring memories of Saturday’s key play in the win over Miami, and Notre Dame found itself on the brink.
On the next pitch, Falk’s two-run single to center gave her a team-best six RBIs for the weekend.
Montemarano, the ensuing batter, laced another two-run single to end Nasland’s afternoon.
The four-run inning padded an earlier lead built by home runs by Romero and Lawrence, Michigan’s All-American duo at the top of the lineup.
Both shots went to left, cutting through a strong wind blowing in on an otherwise perfect afternoon.
— Download the Michigan football on MLive app for iPhone and Android
— Download the Michigan basketball on MLive app for iPhone and Android
— Follow MLive’s Michigan coverage on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
— Subscribe to “The Wolverine Beat” podcast on iTunes