It’s almost here. Michigan Softball’s 2019 season is just one day away from taking flight in Tampa, Florida. This article is our comprehensive season preview of the season, from the roster to the schedule, we’ve got you covered. So let’s dive right in:
The 2018 Team
2018 was an odd year for Michigan Softball, with some high points and low points. The team began 6-6, with some big wins (including against eventual National Champion Florida St. in Tallahassee) but also ugly losses. From that point forward, the team went 37-3 in their next 40, clinching the Big Ten Championship, and knocking on the door of hosting a Regional. But then things turned downwards, losing ugly (10-1) in the regular season finale against Ohio State at Alumni Field and then getting smacked around by a bad Michigan State team in the first round of the Big Ten Softball Tournament in Madison, WI. Michigan fell one spot short of hosting the regional, instead getting shipped to Lexington, KY, to take on the Wildcats. Unfortunately, they never even got to play Kentucky, as Michigan would get beaten twice by Notre Dame (with a win over UIC sandwiched in between). The season ending loss to the Irish was a crusher, holding a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the sixth before surrendering two runs in the loss.
Michigan isn’t losing many players from the 2018 team, but they lost one huge player that isn’t going to be easy to replace. That player is Tera Blanco, who was Michigan’s best hitter and #2 pitcher last season, a four year starter, and a key player on some of Carol Hutchins’s best teams, including the 2015-16 squads. Blanco was the Wolverine with the most pop in the order and was a steady presence in the circle, even though she tailed off a bit at the end of the year. Michigan also loses Aidan Falk, who was a valuable piece, even though she struggled at times last season (the worst batting average and slugging percentage of her four year career). Compared to last season, when the Wolverines lost the whole left side of their infield, in addition to their best hitter (Susalla) and ace (Megan Betsa), this new team hasn’t lost nearly as much, but Blanco will be hard to replace.
- Lexie Blair: the Michigan freshman with the best chance of starting is Lexie Blair, the #28 overall recruit and an outfielder from Florida. Blair was a Maxpreps 2nd Team All American in high school and a 3x all-state first team selection for Florida. Blair started in right field in the fall game against Michigan State and appears to be a Natalie Peters type: plays good defense, steals bases, and slaps the ball.
- Morgan Overaitis: The highest touted recruit that Michigan signed in this class, Overaitis was the #18 overall recruit and an in-state player. A shortstop, Overaitis had 38 HR’s in high school, so she has the ability to provide power. I don’t see her usurping Natalia Rodriguez yet, but who knows? DP is an option as well if she provides a solid bat.
- Hannah Carson: A native of Weidman, MI, Carson is the #21 recruit nationally and a catcher/first baseman. She was a 3x all-state first team player for the state of the Michigan in high school and she appears to have some power, swatting 31 HR’s in high school. If she plays this year, it will likely be at DP, and in occasion, backing up Katie Alexander behind the plate. Beyond that, she will likely be a three year starter starting in 2020 after Alexander departs.
- Gianna Carosone: The Wolverines signed a second shortstop to this class in the form of Carosone, the #60 overall player hailing from North Las Vegas, NV. Carosone didn’t play much in the fall exhibition game, so I don’t have much to say here, other than I wouldn’t expect to see a lot of her yet.
- Alex Storako: Michigan took another pitcher in this class, though a not terribly heralded one. Storako had an excellent high school career in Illinois but is not a top 100 prospect. A right hander, she pitched in the fall game at Alumni against MSU and was actually better than Sarah Schaefer. That’s still only a one game sample in exhibition, but based on the team sentiments at media day, it seems like there’s a good chance she starts the season as the #2 pitcher.
- Grace Chelemen: Chelemen was the late waiver that Michigan snagged after the main signing period, so we have no write up on her the way they do the other players in this class. She also didn’t play much in the exhibition game so I have no scouting on her either. She’s marketed as an infielder, so she could be anything from a Mackenzie Nemitz to a Haley Hooegenraad in terms of usage. The one nugget? Apparently she won the team hitting challenge in the fall.
Now we get to go through the returning players for the Michigan Wolverines and how they fit in on the 2019 team:
Meghan Beaubien - The sophomore star was Michigan’s whole team last season and probably will be again. A former top 10 recruit nationally, Beaubien was excellent from day one, racking up B1G Pitcher of the Year and B1G Freshman of the Year, as well as being a finalist for NFCA Freshman of the Year and USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year, and was named to the NFCA All-America first team. The one big factor this season for Beaubien is workload, as she appeared fatigued late in the season, with her struggles contributing to Michigan’s postseason losses. After appearing in 45 of Michigan’s 55 games last season, she logged a ton of innings and may have worn herself out, so it will be important for Michigan to find a #2 option. That said, when Beaubien is fresh, she is one of the 5 or 10 best pitchers in college softball and the type that can win big games against elite opponents.
Lou Allan - Allan is Michigan’s X-Factor for 2019. Her freshman season was far less than expected, though it was largely robbed by injuries. As a Top-10 recruit nationally, she was expected to be a star right away, akin to Beaubien, but a knee issue caused her to miss the first month of the season and she never really settled in. Most notably, the immense power she showed in high school (44 HR’s in her HS career) vanished, having just 7 XBH in 36 games (25 starts). If Lou Allan becomes the player she was billed as coming out of high school, she will be a star, perhaps a superstar, and Michigan won’t miss Blanco’s bat much at all. The talent and potential is there, she just needs to put it all together and be fully healthy. With Blanco gone, I expect Allan to either start at 1B or DP and hit in the middle of the order. The future is now.
Katie Alexander - Alexander was a breakout player for the 2018 Wolverines, with her batting average and OBP jumping over fifty points, solidifying herself in the middle of the Wolverine lineup. She swatted 5 HR’s, showing off some quality pop and most of all, is a defensive rock. With a cannon for an arm behind the plate, she is defensively strong and is a foundation of an overall stellar defensive team. Entering her senior season, expect good things from the Saline Slugger.
Faith Canfield - The starting 2B is entering her senior campaign as well and is fresh off being named to the All-America Third Team. A four year starter, Canfield took a tiny step back offensively in 2018, but is still someone who hits for average, draws walks, never strikes out, and with 7 HR’s, has decent power. Her .391 batting average in 2018 led the Wolverines and she was named to the All-B1G First Defensive team for her great work in the field. Canfield is a senior leader who will be expected to carry a hefty amount of weight offensively.
Natalia Rodriguez - NatRod had a bumpy first season for the Wolverines, rising from obscurity to seize the starting SS job as a freshman. Rodriguez is a slap hitter who prides herself on stellar defense and for most of the season, that was the case. Her end to the season might have been the most ugly- and uncharacteristic- of any Michigan player, finishing 1-16 at the plate and committing 4 errors in the final 5 games, after just 6 in the preceding 50 games. It left a sour taste in the mouth of Michigan softball fans but make no mistake, Rodriguez is a talented player and since she’s only a sophomore in 2019, she’s got the best days ahead of her. When her defense is on, she’s an elite defensive shortstop who should be able to hit .275 and steal 10 bases in a season. That’s the player Michigan will be expecting this year, and hopefully, will be getting.
Madison Uden - The other big breakout player of 2018 was Madison Uden, a now junior infielder who swiped the 3B job early last season and never looked back. Her .357 average was second best on the team (though she finished the year in a slump), and she’s a patient hitter, sporting an OBP nearly one hundred points higher than her batting average. Her power isn’t tremendous (5 HR’s in two seasons at Michigan) but her ability to get on base is a big table setter. She’s decent defensively at third and should start nearly every game this season.
Haley Hoogenraad - Hoogenraad came out of nowhere in 2018, going from a barely used bench player in her freshman campaign to starting over 50 games a year ago. Her final average of .289 wasn’t anything special and like so many others, she finished in a slump. Still, her growth as a sophomore is a promising sign of things to come and in an outfield with uncertainty at one corner, having a dependable option locking down left field is big. Her 4 HR’s last year were a boost and it will be interesting to see if she can improve on that this year. Regardless, HH will be an everyday starter this season for the Wolverines.
Natalie Peters - Peters is a rock in centerfield, a prototypical #2 in the order slapper who steals bases and plays good defense. Her offense last season was a step down compared to 2017, with the batting average falling from .361 to .312 (though her OBP didn’t fall as far because she took more walks), but she was still one of Michigan’s most dependable players. Consistent and now entering her third year as a starter, Peters will likely be playing basically every game in center in 2019.
The rest of the returning players are a mix of solid utility players and backups. Abby Skvarce will be one of the backup catchers and may see time as the DP, and Alex Sobczak will also likely see time as the DP too. Thaís Gonzalez is the fourth outfielder/pinch runner who won’t see a ton of at-bats and Mackenzie Nemitz is pretty sparingly used. The two names you will hear more of are Sarah Schaefer and Taylor Bump, a pair of sophomores who have roles to play on this team (more on that later).
Woof this schedule is brutal. Going off the USA Today Preseason Coaches Poll, Michigan will play #5, #7, #11 (twice), #2, #8, #25, #3, #23, and #12 in the non-conference portion of the season. It all starts with the annual USF Opening Weekend Tournament in Tampa, FL, which we will be covering as usual, where Michigan will meet Florida and Arizona, two top 10 teams, in addition to a USF team that made the tournament a year ago, and NC St., who is at least a power 5 team. Michigan draws UNC and Louisville in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, which should be a bit easier as neither team were particularly good a year ago, but then it’s right back to the grind. The Wolverines trek down to Baton Rouge, LA, to play a tournament where they will clash with a top 15 LSU team twice. The next weekend is the climax, a tournament in Fullerton, California, which includes Oregon, Washington, UCLA, and Tennessee, who were four of the top 10 seeds in last year’s NCAA Tournament. Finally, Michigan plays a weakened but still talented ASU team, as well as James Madison in a tourney out in Tempe. Just a murderer’s row.
In Big Ten play, Michigan has a fine schedule, getting Indiana at home but OSU on the road, in addition to the usual home-and-home with MSU. Illinois, PSU, Rutgers, Nebraska, and Maryland fill out the rest of a Big Ten Schedule that’s pretty meh in terms of competition. But the non-con more than makes up for it.
Final Thoughts and a Prediction
Last year the biggest questions were about replacing Betsa in the circle and the large holes in the lineup. This year the questions are:
1.) Can Michigan find a reliable #2 to spell Beaubien when needed?
2.) Can Michigan cobble together a consistent offensive threat to elevate the team to national contention?
The first question is rather murky. Sarah Schaefer had ups and downs in her first season and Storako is pretty unknown. Regardless of who gets the nod behind Beaubien, it’s pretty fair to expect that neither will be anywhere near Beaubien’s caliber, which will pressure Carol Hutchins to use Beaubien as much as possible. As a result, it would be big if Michigan could reliably pummel bad teams offensively, so that Hutchins can feel comfortable starting Storako or Schaefer against the middling teams.
The second question is the key to Michigan’s season. In the big moments last year, the Wolverines were just never able to score with consistency, forcing their close games to be tight, low scoring affairs where Beaubien was asked to do everything. So how can this team be better on offense? It starts with internal improvement. Particularly, Peters and Canfield returning to 2017 production, while Uden and Hoogenraad continue to take steps forward. But they’re going to need help from elsewhere too and once again it comes down to Lou Allan. That kind of talent has to turn into a consistent threat at the plate if the Wolverines are to be any kind of a national contender this year. Her ceiling is immense, but as we saw last year, the floor can be rather low too. A name I’m intrigued by on this topic is Taylor Bump. We didn’t get to see much from her last season, but she clubbed 16 HR’s as a HS senior while playing in the talent-rich state of Florida. With an open spot at DP, if she can translate that offense into the collegiate level, that would be huge for Michigan. Each of the last two squads have had surprising sophomore jumps (Hoogenraad last year, Alexander in 2017) and it wouldn’t surprise me if Bump makes a similar leap this year.
So what about the season at large? Well due to Michigan’s schedule, we’re going to get a very good idea of where this team sits nationally very early on, probably within the first month. Meghan Beaubien gives Michigan the capability to be very successful this year, but whether they do so will hinge on the talent of the supporting cast around her. With herself in the circle and most all of Michigan’s starters returning from a year ago, this is probably going to be another stingy team, not surrendering many runs due to stout defense and excellent pitching. But they have to find ways to scratch across runs against elite pitchers. If they can’t, we may well be in for another season of 1-0 losses to top teams. In Big Ten play, the expectation is that Michigan will win the conference again, so it comes down to whether the Wolverines can snatch enough wins in non-conference play to host a regional. I think they will be able to, but anything beyond that is anyone’s guess.