Another year, another season preview. Michigan Softball’s 2020 season is just 3 days from kicking off in Tampa, Florida, and with it, I’m here for our 3rd annual WCBN Sports Michigan Softball season preview article. We’ll cover the team, the schedule, and season expectations:
The 2019 Team
Michigan went 45-13 (22-1) to repeat as Big Ten Champions in what was a tumultuous season. The Wolverines went 3-2 in the Tampa tournament, losing close games to Arizona and Florida that gave some signs of optimism before embarking on a brutal stretch. They went just 1-3 in the ACC-B1G challenge against unranked North Carolina and Louisville, then 2-3 in the LSU Invitational. Entering the Judi Garman Classic, Michigan was 7-8 and the season was teetering on disaster as the team stared down a top 10 gauntlet. But that’s when the season started to turn, as Michigan knocked off #2 (and eventual national champion) UCLA, as well as #5 Washington. Michigan wasn’t totally out of the woods though, defeating #16 Arizona St. but stumbling against #21 James Madison and then embarrassingly, South Dakota. After returning to Alumni Field, Michigan went on an incredible run, going 28-1 to close out the regular season, including 22-1 in the conference to win the Big Ten Championship for the second straight year. With the #1 seed in the B1G Tourney, Michigan beat Illinois in extra innings on a dramatic Lexie Blair walk-off HR, smacked around Wisconsin 8-3 in the semifinal, and then beat national #12 Minnesota in a climactic 3-2 championship game. This gave Michigan both the regular season and tournament conference title for the first time since 2015 and were awarded a regional host for the first time since 2016, the national 15 seed in the tournament. But that came with a drawback: Michigan was paired with James Madison, by far the best team not to host a regional (they should’ve hosted one, in the author’s opinion). Michigan easily dispatched St. Francis (PA) before defeating James Madison in the game of the year, 1-0 in 12 innings on a Madison Uden walk-off single. But they had to defeat JMU one more time to move onto the Super Regional, and that’s where the season came to an end. Megan Good’s stellar pitching (and hitting) proved too much and Michigan dropped a Monday doubleheader 3-0 and 2-1 to conclude their season.
Michigan loses a decent bit from their senior class. The three most notable are quite clearly Faith Canfield, Katie Alexander, and Natalie Peters. Canfield was one of the most remarkably consistent players in recent Michigan Softball history, hitting .398, .391, and .404 her final three seasons at Michigan, with 9, 7, and 9 HR’s. Her defense was also stellar and her overall play will not be easy to replace immediately. Alexander was a fan favorite, an excellent defensive catcher who hit .314 as a junior, and then knocked 10 HR’s as a senior last season before suffering an injury in game 1 of the regional. She was a lifeblood of the team but Michigan thankfully has an obvious successor lined up (more on that later). Peters, like Canfield, was incredibly consistent over her final three seasons, hitting over .300 all three years, a prototypical slap hitter who got on base, stole bases, and scored runs with little power.
Beyond those three, Michigan loses Alex Sobczak and Mackenzie Nemitz. Both were bench players until having breakout seasons as seniors. Despite their mostly strong senior seasons, both cooled off by the end of the year (the latter was replaced in the starting lineup by the Regional), and so should not be considered of the same difficulty in replacement as the former three. That said, both were power hitters and their combined 15 HR’s will be an obvious area that needs to be replaced.
(Note: pinch-runner specialist Grace Chelemen was a freshman last season but has transferred to Marshall University for unknown reasons. She had 7 at-bats last season).
Michigan reeled in the #4 recruiting class in the nation, so they will add a ton of talent to the roster for this season:
- Chandler Dennis, P: A top tier pitching prospect, Dennis is a Georgia recruit who is coming to Michigan and is in the top 30 nationally from multiple scouting services. She is a high strikeout pitcher who apparently can also hit and from the athletic department’s write up about the recruiting class, Carol Hutchins noted that Dennis “is really a pitcher we believe can come in and help us right away and contribute to our success." Given that, I’d expect to see some of Dennis right away, though I’m not sure how much given that Michigan already has two capable pitchers in Beaubien and Storako.
- Lauren Esman, INF/P: Esman is a dual-threat prospect who torched Michigan high school softball and is ranked around #50 nationally by the scouting sites. Esman hit 21 HR’s as a junior, one shy of the Michigan HS record, and with four pitchers in front of her, I would not expect to see much of her arm this year. That said, given that power, and the fact she hit a near-HR (ended up being a double) in fall ball, if she can hit for power, there may well be a spot for her in the lineup as a freshman.
- Julia Jimenez, INF: Jimenez is the highest rated prospect in the class, ranked around #20 nationally. Apparently nicknamed “Juju”, Jimenez’s scouting report reads something like Faith Canfield’s, a sure-handed infielder who can hit for average and has a bit (but not a ton) of power in her bat. Due to her high recruiting status, Jimenez has probably the best chance of the bunch to start as a freshman, likely in Canfield’s spot at 2B.
- Audrey LeClair, OF: LeClair is ranked somewhere between 25th and 50th nationally depending on which site you look at and her scouting report is a jack-of-all-trades outfielder. Athletic, can hit for average, and has a small touch of power. She would seem to be a candidate to start immediately, given a hole in the outfield.
- Lexi Voss, OF: The other outfielder in the class, Voss is ranked right around LeClair in the national recruiting rankings, but has a different scouting report. Voss, like Esman, is a power hitter, as she hit 19 HR’s as a junior on the Chicago area HS softball circuit, and that power may give her a leg up over LeClair in the race to start in the outfield.
- Jessica Garmen, C: Garmen was a late addition to the class, so we have very little information on her. However, given her position, I think the expectation is for Garmen to be a developmental catcher, sitting behind Abby Skvarce this year as the #3 catcher, before backing up Hannah Carson her next two years. I wouldn’t expect a ton from Garmen, though then again, Katie Alexander was once an unheralded, late addition to the recruiting class too.
Now we get to go through the returning players for the Michigan Wolverines and how they fit in on the 2020 team:
Meghan Beaubien, LHP (Jr.): No introduction needed here. Meghan Beaubien has been everything Michigan has needed her to be since she arrived in Ann Arbor, an ace from day one. Each year on campus she’s added a signature moment to her legacy, from her near-no hitter against Florida State in 2018 to the impeccable 12 inning shutout with 12 K’s to defeat JMU in Game 1 of the Ann Arbor Regional in 2019. Beaubien struggled at times to live up to the expectations after her freshman campaign but she was still an undisputed ace as a sophomore. Now as an upperclassman, it’s time for Beaubien to fulfill her promise, becoming one of the absolute best pitchers in NCAA softball. With a fastball that can touch mid-70s and nasty offspeed stuff, the potential is there. In the words of WCBN Sports legend Morris Fabbri “Beaubien is unhittable when her change is cooking”. If she can be slightly more consistent this season, the sky’s the limit for the southpaw.
Alex Storako, RHP (So.): Storako was the clear #2 in Michigan’s staff last season, but she was a very solid #2 as a freshman at that. Standing nearly 6’0”, Storako has good strikeout stuff and posted a 2.02 ERA with 190 K’s in 142.1 IP a year ago, and her highlight of the season was no doubt her save to seal the B1G Tournament title with a heroic 7th inning against an excellent Minnesota team. Confidence often seemed to be an issue for Storako in 2019, wavering from periods of terrific pitching and then hard contact against. If Storako can become slightly more consistent in 2020, she could elevate herself into a #2 that earns her more time in postseason settings.
Hannah Carson, C (So.): Carson got to simmer behind Katie Alexander in 2019 and now it’s go time for the sophomore catcher. Across 34 games and 12 starts last season, Carson hit .296/.381/.481/.862, showing off an ability to hit for both power and average. Her defensive fundamentals look strong and she will likely start almost every game behind the plate this season. Carson was pressed into starting duty against JMU in the Regional after Alexander’s injury and she seemed like she belonged and so of all the holes to replace seniors, catcher is the one I feel the best about. That’s because everything we’ve seen from Carson so far suggests this could be as close to a one-for-one substitution with Alexander as possible, with higher potential too.
Lou Allan, 1B (Jr.): No player on this roster has been quite a “what if” as Lou Allan. This article hyped her up as a 5-star freshman in the 2018 season. Then a knee injury shortened her freshman year and she never really seemed comfortable. This article hyped her up as a breakout player last year. Then another knee injury held her out for a long while a year ago, before she finally got to show her talent at the end of the year. All of Michigan Softball prayed for a healthy offseason for Lou and according to Carol Hutchins at media day, it seems like Lou has gotten that. Allan has probably the most pure hitting talent on the roster, and her compact frame could allow her to be a power hitter, if she could ever stay healthy. Allan finished the year strong, going 5 for her last 13 and working her way into the starting lineup by the regional. Then in fall ball Allan raked, going 4/8 against very good Kentucky pitching and 5/11 overall in fall play. If she’s healthy, she’s going to start. And also if she’s healthy, she’s probably going to be really good. Please just stay healthy.
Morgan Overaitis, INF (So.): After watching the Tampa tourney a year ago, I was higher on Morgan Overaitis than I was about almost any other player on the team. She got her chance to start as a freshman the next weekend but proved to not quite be ready for that. Still she lurked as a pinch hitter, hitting a solid .255/.361 and her tendency to smoke the ball whenever she hits is why I’m still very high on Overaitis’s potential. Overaitis hits the ball hard, and she can take walks, two signs of any good hitter. She swatted a home run in fall ball and so this 2020 season is the moment for Overaitis to take off. Expect her to start either in the field or DP and have a breakout sophomore campaign.
Natalia Rodriguez, SS (Jr.): NatRod had a very solid second season for Michigan, upping her batting average by 50 points and her OBP by 30 points. She remains her usual self: a defensive rock, a consistent slap hitter, and someone willing to use her speed to bunt, steal, and sacrifice. Michigan would love to see her take another step forward offensively this season, but her trademark strong defense is worth her spot as the team’s starting shortstop.
Madison Uden, 3B (Sr.): Uden enters her senior campaign as one of the team’s leaders and Michigan wants to get a great final season out of her. Uden exploded in her first season as a starter in 2018, hitting .357, but that average dropped to .263 last year. While the power improved last season (from 3 HR to 7), the drop in batting average was tough to stomach. If she can put it all together, raising the average back to 2018 level and combining it with the power from last year, she’ll be a star. Expect Uden to start at third for a third straight season.
Taylor Bump, INF (Jr.): Bump entered Michigan as a prospect hyped with a lot of power and it’s easy to see why given her tall frame, but so far as a Wolverine it’s been a struggle to make contact that has kept her out of the lineup consistently. There were some glimmers of hope this fall though, as she had a big performance against MSU at home with a HR and a couple of runs scored. If someone breaks out late in their career this season a la Nemitz and Sobczak a year ago, my money is on Bump, especially if she can hit for power consistently.
Lexie Blair, OF (So.): A year ago this article wrote “Michigan freshman with the best chance of starting is Lexie Blair … appears to be a Natalie Peters type: plays good defense, steals bases, and slaps the ball”. That was mostly right. Blair did start, right away in fact, and she never let up. And while I love Natalie Peters, Blair turned out to be so much more than that description, becoming the first freshman in the last 20 years of Michigan Softball history to hit .400 for a season, and she showed surprising power, swatting 6 HR’s. She was a unanimous All-B1G first team selection and a national freshman of the year finalist. How do you follow that up? I’m not honestly sure, but Lexie is the heart and soul of the offense and will be a cornerstone of the team for the next three years. Expect more of the same: great offense, stellar defense, speed, and leadership. Michigan’s star.
Haley Hoogenraad, OF (Sr.): Hoogenraad was the team’s 2018 breakout player when she filled a hole in the OF vacated by Kelly Christner and is in line to start as a senior again. Her offensive numbers regressed as a junior and Michigan would like to see her get back to close to .300 in batting average. She always provides excellent defense in the OF and with a small bit of power, she remains a respectable piece of the starting lineup.
Outside of these players, Michigan has a few other bench pieces that we don’t have much to write about. Abby Skvarce remains one of the top pinch-hitting options and is the backup catcher if Hannah Carson is unable to go for a particular game. Gianna Carosone rarely played as a freshman and it’s uncertain if she will have a bigger role this year, especially in a clogged infield. Thaís Gonzalez is likely to be the first candidate to pinch run in all situations but it seems unlikely that she will start in any capacity as a senior. Sarah Schaefer was the third pitcher a year ago, but with blue chip prospect Chandler Dennis now on the roster, she could be hard-pressed for innings this season. (Note: Schaefer is out with injury to begin the season per Carol Hutchins)
So…. what about the lineup then?
Based on fall ball and my general feeling on the roster, my guess for the defensive alignment is the following:
LeClair/Voss Blair Hoogenraad
Uden NatRod Jimenez Allan
And in lineup form it is the following:
1: Lexie Blair, CF
2: Julia Jimenez, 2B
3: Lou Allan, 1B
4: Hannah Carson, C
5: Morgan Overaitis, DP
6: Madison Uden, 3B
7: LeClair/Voss, LF
8: Haley Hoogenraad, RF
9: Natalia Rodriguez, SS
The schedule checks in as roughly as difficult as it was a year ago, easier than last season in the non-conference, but substantially harder in conference play. As for the non-conference, Michigan makes its annual trip to the USF tournament in the opening weekend (which WCBN Sports will be covering, as always) and this year faces just Florida and USF in terms of marquee opponents (no Arizona like last year). This season presents no doubt Michigan’s best opportunity to beat the Gators since WCBN Sports started covering the tourney, as the Wolverines are ranked higher than Florida in FloSoftball’s preseason rankings and it’s no surprise to diehard softball watchers, really. Florida was a poor hitting team a year ago (.264 team average) dragged to the Super Regional by the incredible work of ace Kelly Barnhill, who haunted Michigan for four straight years. Now Barnhill is gone, and so is Florida’s best hitter, Amanda Lorenz, meaning the Gators have huge holes to fill. They should still be a solid squad that should host a regional, and they always have terrific talent, but the Florida game is actually a tossup for the first time in years. If Michigan can sweep the Tampa tourney (they’ll be favored over USF), that’s a huge boost. The Wolverines get a rematch with UNC/Louisville in the B1G-ACC tourney the next weekend, and both teams had excellent seasons a year ago, but both also lose some real pieces too. That should be a 3-1 or 4-0 weekend. Over the next three weekends of non-conference play, Michigan will encounter #19 South Carolina, #6 Texas, #1 Washington, and defending national champion, #4 UCLA. This gives Michigan a chance to bolster the strength of schedule and if they can snare a win or two from that group, it would be huge. Otherwise the key is not getting upset by the teams in between, the Iowa States, UCFs, Loyola Marymounts, etc..
In conference play, Michigan has a grueling schedule. The B1G has three teams in position to potentially host regionals, with Minnesota and Northwestern being the other two besides the Wolverines. Michigan will host Minnesota and play @Northwestern on consecutive weekends in early April, and those two weeks will decide the regular season champion. Michigan did not see either team a year ago in the regular season, nor did they see Wisconsin, who Michigan will face in Madison in late March. Wisconsin figures to be a solid tourney team yet again, and Michigan also draws archrival Ohio State in late April, another perennial middling tourney team. All things considered, out of the top 4 non-Michigan B1G teams, the Wolverines are getting all four in the regular season for three game sets, when last year they only got one. If Michigan wants another B1G regular season title, they’re gonna have to earn it.
Final Thoughts and a Prediction
Each year I’ve written this article, I’ve asked two big questions that will define the season. This year I’ve still got two pressing questions:
1.) Can Michigan avoid stumbling in non-conference play and start the season strong?
2.) Can Michigan’s offense develop enough power and overall hitting to make the Super Regionals/WCWS?
For the first question, this could well be the difference between Michigan making the Super Regional or not, since it was last season. Michigan was placed into a brutal regional with JMU simply because they did not take care of business early in the season, particularly in Chapel Hill, as well as other games (South Dakota stands out). Whether the Wolverines can remove those ugly losses will be important for NCAA Tournament seeding, and thus whether they get an easier draw or another difficult one like last season. As a result, the first five weeks of the season are crucial: Michigan needs to win a few marquee games and most importantly stay perfect against teams they’re better than.
As for question #2, this is always the most important quagmire. Michigan’s offense was substantially better in 2019 than 2018, and it was also clearly better in terms of clutch hitting (B1G Tourney, Regional G2, Nemitz walk off vs IU, Uden walk off vs PSU, etc). Though it wasn’t quite enough in the end to propel Michigan to the supers, it was also in the ballpark of what’s needed to play into June. Now for Michigan the question is whether they can replace those seniors/improve? Carson for Alexander is a swap I feel pretty good about, as is Allan for Sobczak. Both have the potential to be better than the departed senior they’re replacing. Overaitis for Nemitz should be a borderline upgrade as well. Then it comes down to freshmen production, and/or Taylor Bump replacing Canfield and Peters. It will be very hard to replicate either, but if Michigan gets improvement from the other three new starters I just mentioned, as well as improvement from other hitters (Uden, HH, Blair, etc), the offense as a whole could take a step forward.
So for the season overall, I think it’s reasonable to expect Michigan to make a trip back to the Super Regional for the first time since 2016 this year in 2020. The Wolverines were a play here or there against JMU from reaching it in 2019, and with the entire pitching staff back, a good number of hitters including the team’s most important bat, and adding the #4 recruiting class in the nation, that goal does not seem out of reach. Right now it seems fair to hope for Michigan’s pitching to improve compared to last season with both Beaubien and Storako adding another year under their belt, while the hitting should be roughly even for reasons explained above. That sums out to a narrow overall improvement for the team, but obviously there’s lots of uncertainty with higher upside possible. In a crowded B1G, I’ll say Michigan finishes #2 behind Minnesota but does well enough in the non-conference to get the #12 seed in the NCAA Tourney, where they win the regional but lose in the supers.