It’s almost here, Michigan softball fans. In less than a week, the Wolverines will take the field to begin their 2018 campaign. With it, comes new opportunity, new hope, and new optimism. Fresh faces on the field, along with some grizzled veterans. Last week, WCBN’s student softball podcast East of the Rockies dropped our first episode, which can be heard here. And to finish up our preparation for softball season, I give you this year’s season preview, which will analyze Michigan’s roster, expectations, schedule, and offer a prediction on a new year of softball.
The 2017 Team
We first have to start by looking at the squad Michigan had a year ago. 2017 was a bit of a step back year for Michigan’s program, which perhaps should’ve been expected in hindsight, after losing big hitters in the lineup, including Sierra Romero, Sierra Lawrence, and Kelsey Susalla. The team went 43-13-1 overall and 20-3 in Big Ten play, finishing second in the conference. However, it was the first time since 2007 that Michigan did not win the Big Ten Regular Season Championship, snapping a streak of 9 straight conference titles. They then stunningly lost to Michigan State in the conference tournament and were placed in the Seattle Regional of the NCAA tournament, with both losses coming to the host team, Washington. It was a season where Michigan consistently beat the bad teams, but failed to really ever beat a good/great team. They tied Florida State, but dropped games to Florida, UCLA, Baylor, Texas A&M, USF, and Kentucky.
Michigan faces two big losses in OF Kelly Christner and ace P Megan Betsa. Betsa was excellent last year, throwing 64% of Michigan’s innings and sporting a 1.40 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, and 12.3 K/7 innings. She will be tough to replace. But Christner was also arguably Michigan’s best hitter, being tied for team HR lead with 9, hitting everywhere in the lineup, and providing solid defense in CF with a great arm. The Wolverines will need players to step up and fill those big shoes. They also lose the left side of the infield, SS Abby Ramirez and 3B Lindsay Montemarano. Neither were power hitters, but both got on at over .400 clips, proving to be valuable offensively. The depth behind them was questionable, and so there will be three holes in the lineup and one big one in the circle for the Wolverines to try and replace.
Michigan brought in a heralded recruiting class, ranked #10 in the country, but on a recruiting points per player basis, they had the #2 class in the country. A big reason why was Michigan snared two of the top 8 recruits in the country, starting with the #6 overall recruit and #3 pitcher in the country, Meghan Beaubien. Beaubien had a monster senior season for St. Mary’s Catholic Central in Monroe, Michigan. She threw two perfect games en route to her team’s state championship and had a 0.35 ERA, 58-4 record, and 851 K’s in 384 IP in her junior and senior years of high school. The Gatorade State of Michigan Softball Player of the Year, Beaubien has the making of an absolute ace. She’s a lefty who can touch 64 mph on the radar gun. With Michigan needing someone to replace Megan Betsa, this new Meghan could be the one. While she’ll share the role with Tera Blanco, expect her to have a similar freshman season to Betsa’s, something to the tune of 20+ GS and an ERA around 2.
The other big name is Lou Allan, 1B from Hesperia, California. A pure power hitter, Allan had a monster season which elevated her to be a top 10 player in the national recruiting rankings. Her grandmother was a two-time Olympic Gold medalist in softball, so she has the pedigree needed to be a champion. She hit 15 home runs her senior year of high school and has the ability to potentially fill some of the missing power Michigan’s been in search of since Sierra Romero’s departure. It appears that she is a bit dinged up and may miss the beginning of the season, but whenever she is ready to go, Michigan will use her.
The other three names are Sarah Schaefer, a pitcher from West Des Moines, Iowa, Taylor Bump, an infielder from St. Petersburg, Florida, and Natalia Rodriguez, an infielder from Clermont, Florida. It’s unclear right now how much these three will play in the 2018 campaign, but Bump and Rodriguez were top 60 recruits nationally, so there is talent here if Coach Carol Hutchins wants to tap into it.
As we look up and down the roster, there are a handful of key returning starters who will be expected to step up in big ways for the Wolverines. Let’s run through them:
Faith Canfield - The junior 2B is on USA Softball’s Top 50 Player of the Year watchlist, the only Wolverine to be featured. She hit .398 with 9 HR and 40 RBI and will be a clear candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year after making a massive leap forward a year ago. How far the Wolverines go in 2018 may rest on whether Canfield can become a bona fide superstar. She should start every single game at 2B and hit in the meat of the order.
Tera Blanco - The senior who plays a bit of P and a bit of 1B has had an interesting career. In her first two years at Michigan, she wasn’t asked to pitch much, with Megan Betsa and Haylie Wagner carrying the weight in 2015, and Betsa and Sara Driesenga doing the job in 2016. That allowed Blanco to start nearly every game at first and focus almost exclusively on her offense. In 2015 she was a potent hitter with a lot of potential, but in 2016 she established herself as a dominant slugger, putting up a .404/.537/.748 triple slash on Michigan’s high powered offense. But last season, the pitching outlook changed after Driesenga’s graduation. With Leah Crockett not proving to be capable enough, Blanco was forced to start 21 games (she had started just 5 career games in the preceding 2 years). She posted solid numbers, 18-3 with a 2.30 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP and 97 K in 125 IP. Her potent bat makes her someone who needs to hit every single game whether she’s pitching or in the field, but her attention to pitching may have affected her offensive numbers, as she slumped down to a .288/.460/.475 triple slash, while Michigan’s offense took a step back. However, she was noticeably better in Big Ten play, hitting .407 with a .744 SLG% in conference. So the question becomes whether she can get back to her monster 2016 numbers while still being a factor in the circle. That is another question that will determine Michigan’s ceiling.
Aidan Falk - Along with Blanco, Falk is the only other senior in the starting lineup and she will likely play a mix of RF and 1B depending on the lineup. She hit .347/.386/.627, with 7 HR and 48 RBI last season. A three year starter, she’ll be expected to carry a lot of weight as an every day player. One development in her game is that she’s hitting a lot more doubles than she used to, and if she can get even better in 2018, that will be a big boost for the Wolverines.
Natalie Peters - Filling the roles of Sierra Lawrence and Kelsey Susalla in the outfield was not easy to do, but the junior Peters had a very solid first year as a main fixture in OF. She hit a strong .361 and played in over 50 games, and will be expected to be a rock in the 2018 campaign. The downside to her game? She hits with very little power (just 2 HR, .418 SLG%) and drew just 11 walks on the season, which limited her OBP. I would like to see her perhaps try to steal more often (11 steals in 2017) and make things happen on the base paths to score more runs since she is the leadoff batter.
Courtney Richardson - In her first full season as a main starter in 2017, she started 42 games and played in 56, hitting .263. She didn’t have a lot of AB’s though, as she was frequently DP’d for. Her overall numbers included a .330 OBP clip and .400 SLG mark. She will probably play LF as her primary position in the 2018 campaign. Michigan will need to get more out of her as her role continues to increase in her junior season.
Katie Alexander - The main catcher for the Wolverines, Alexander seized the role after a competition for the job early on and ended up starting 43 of the 57 games Michigan played. A junior from the area (played HS ball at Saline), she had a respectable .260/.339/.471 triple slash with 4 HR’s. In her second full season, Michigan will look to Alexander to take a step forward on both sides of the ball, leading a new pitching staff while also providing more offensively.
The remainder of the team is a little more questionable. While the outfield of Richardson-Peters-Falk is solidified, as is Canfield at 2B and Alexander behind the dish, the left side of the infield replacing Ramirez-Montemarano is very questionable. In fall ball, it seemed to be a battle between Madison Uden and freshman Taylor Bump for SS, while the 3B job seemed to be a battle between Alex Sobczak and Taylor Swearingen. My guess is that Uden takes the shortstop job and I’m inclined to think it’ll be Sobczak at the hot corner, but it’s not clear now and it may not be for awhile. But here we go:
Madison Uden - The sophomore was labeled the shortstop of the future early in her career and she saw some time at 3B, too. She wasn’t asked to do a whole lot, but did come on late in the year and started 7 games in the B1G. She has some pop in her bat and hit .255 on the year, but .367 in the Big Ten. Can she make a big sophomore jump the way Faith Canfield did a year ago? If she does, Michigan will be destined for very good things.
Alex Sobczak - The junior is a bit inconsistent and lost the catcher battle to Katie Alexander a year ago and now looks to be the 3B favorite instead. She has a big arm which makes sense for 3B to be a backup option for her career path, but her glove needs to hold its own. She only hit .243 last season, but hit .258 in 2016 when she started 25 games. Michigan will need to see improvement from her or else they will look elsewhere for this position in the lineup. On days where Tera Blanco pitches, I’m inclined to think that this would be the most likely spot they use the DP for.
The rest of the roster includes Swearingen, a senior infielder who lost the 3B job to Montemarano a couple years ago, and hasn’t found much playing time since. She really, really struggles with the bat, never having hit above .235 but does bring some solid power to the game. Senior Amanda Vargas is an option for DP, as she rarely sees the field, but is a decent hitter and draws quite a few walks. Haley Hoogenraad and Thais Gonzalez have largely only been used as pinch hitter options in the past, so I wouldn’t expect much out of them. If P Leah Crockett can contribute, that would be a welcome sight, but she has struggled in her time in Ann Arbor, so I wouldn’t bank on it.
Thus, if I have to project a lineup, I’ll give you these two:
When Blanco pitches:
When Beaubien pitches:
They could be totally off, and if they are, so be it. It’s based on the fall ball lineups, but in this kind of season, it’s really hard to know what the bottom of the lineup will be (anything after Blanco is TBD)
Michigan’s schedule is tough, as always. The Tampa tourney coming up this weekend (which we previewed on this week’s EotR and will have 4 of the 5 games covered on YouTube) will be a big test, facing #2 Florida. The other four teams will not be walkovers but should be wins. Then Michigan goes to Tallahassee for the B1G/ACC Challenge, which is 2 games against #6 and Notre Dame, who was just out of the poll. Getting 2 or 3 wins in that weekend would be a big boost. Then it’s off to Austin, Texas (which we will have covered on YouTube), where Michigan will play the Texas Longhorns, a team that’s been good in the past but isn’t ranked to start the year. They will also face Virginia Tech and Wichita State down in Texas. A sweep of that weekend would be massive, but a 4-1 slate wouldn’t be bad. Next stop is Fullerton, CA, to take on #12 Baylor, along with a few other solid squads. After that, it’s Boca Raton, Florida, which will be an easier tourney for Michigan, with Pittsburgh or Florida A&M being the best team there. Finally, they go to Oxford, Ohio for a tournament that should be an easy clean sweep. It’s not the toughest early season slate, but it will allow us to know how good the team is. If they can emerge with only 4 losses, that would be the sign that this team is a national title contender. 7 or 8 and it’s probably another mediocre (by Michigan's standards) year.
The Big Ten is likely going to be bad, again. It also doesn’t help that of the seven 3 game sets Michigan plays, 6 of them are against the teams that finished 9th-14th in the Big Ten a year ago (Purdue, Iowa, Rutgers, Maryland, Penn State, Indiana). The only decent Big Ten team Michigan will play is Ohio State and they get them in a three game set at home. If Michigan is playing for the WCWS, they should clean sweep the B1G (23-0) or at worst drop only one game. If this team isn’t up to par, it’ll be 20-3 or 19-4. In between the B1G games, they have home games against CMU (home opener), WMU, and EMU, which should provide fun in-state battles. As always, the season wraps up with the Big Ten tourney, this year in Madison, Wisconsin, where Michigan will hopefully get to play the only other really good B1G team, Minnesota. After that, it’s NCAA Tourney time. As always, a top 16 seed means you host a regional, and a top 8 seed means if you defend home turf, you will head to the WCWS.
My Closing Thoughts and Predictions
To me, this season will depend on two main questions:
1.) Can Meghan Beaubien step up and be an ace?
2.) Do a few players step forward to be offensive weapons providing big hits?
Question 1 is more important, but both are essential. If the answer to both is yes, then this will be a Top 10 squad that should make the Women’s College World Series. If the answer to only one is yes, then maybe they host a regional, maybe they make the WCWS, but it’s a bit more unclear. And if the answer is no to both, then uh oh.
In theory, asking a freshman to be an ace seems preposterous, but there is some history here. Betsa, Haylie Wagner, and Jordan Taylor were all very, very good as freshman for Michigan, so there is a precedent of those types of freshman breakouts. Additionally, in fall ball, Beaubien threw 18 innings, giving up 4 H and 3 BB, and 32 K. Now yes, fall ball isn’t the perfect measuring stick, but Michigan did play CMU, WMU, and MSU, all teams that while not softball powerhouses, aren’t exactly community colleges either. She was facing D-1 lineups and mowed them down. That gives me a lot of hope, and all the reports from practice indicate that Hutch and the team thinks she’s the real deal.
Question 2 is maybe less important, but also pretty crucial. Last season, they just didn’t have the big time stars to hit when they needed the huge knock like they had with the Sierras in years past. That left them short in big moments and against great teams. Can Tera Blanco post excellent numbers and return to her 2016 type offensive prowess? Can Faith Canfield assert herself as a First Team All-American? Can Aidan Falk have a big senior year? Can Madison Uden have a sophomore breakout the way Canfield did a year ago? Someone (probably a few) needs to step up and carry the weight offensively and take some pressure off the shoulders of the pitching staff if Michigan wants to be a contender.
So how do I see it all shaping up? I think Blanco and Falk have strong senior campaigns and Canfield has an excellent season, but the bottom of the order still holds the team back, though there will be signs of progress. I think Beaubien will have a really good freshman season, but will still be a freshman and with Blanco not quite being an ace in the circle, Michigan’s pitching struggles to replicate what they had a year ago with Betsa. I think they probably drop a game in the B1G and maybe 5 or so in non conference, leaving them somewhere around 47-7 entering the postseason, perhaps good enough to host a Regional. They probably come up short of the WCWS but with only two impact seniors departing after the season, the 2019 squad will look ready to make a run for the title.
Image Credit: mgoblue.com (http://grfx.cstv.com/photos/schools/mich/sports/w-softbl/auto_a_storywide/12450668.jpeg)