The Michigan Wolverines softball team is also coming off of a spectacular season that defied expectations. While no one wrote off the Wolverines, few expected the kind of meteoric rise that ended just one win shy of a championship. This year, Michigan has once again rolled over their competition in preseason tournaments to the tune of a 17-2 record, with the only losses being one to the defending champion Florida Gators and a 6-5 nail-biter at the hands of a 9th-ranked Washington team. Like their west-coast NBA homologues, the Wolverines are poised to meet the limitless expectations placed upon them by the precedent they set last year. The Warriors are seemingly ubiquitous in the national media, with networks clamoring for the ratings gold that accompanies their games. The Wolverines, too, will be a must-watch, for a litany of reasons.
The Warriors are led by Stephen Curry, a dynamic player with limitless range, comparable to no one in the history of the NBA. The Wolverines are led by Sierra Romero, who already tops the University of Michigan record books in nearly every significant offensive category (runs, HR, RBI, SLG%, AVG, and she’s 2nd in walks, trailing the leader by 5). Like Curry, adjectives fail at encapsulating the sheer brilliance that is Romero on the diamond. Unlike Curry, Romero shines in every facet of the game, playing top-notch defense, stealing bases, and bunting as well as any of her teammates. Romero home runs are like Curry sinking 30-foot bombs; even though you expect them to happen all the time, the frequency and consistency with which they occur are still awe-inspiring.
The Warriors roster contains two other players who are uniquely brilliant: Klay Thompson, who may be the second-best shooter in the league, and Draymond Green, a human swiss army knife of a player who has overcome his 6’7″ frame to become a versatile big man perfectly suited to the offensive and defensive trends of the modern game. The Wolverines roster is teeming with stars in their own right. Michigan returns four players from last year’s NCFA All-America team in Romero, center fielder Sierra Lawrence, left fielder Kelly Christner, and junior right-handed pitcher Megan Betsa. Christner provides tremendous lefty pop behind Romero in the order, ensuring that no favorable matchups are available for opposing pitchers. Christner combines with the speedy Lawrence in the outfield to produce one of the rangiest and most fundamentally sound defensive outfields in the country. Oh, and Lawrence is also one of four Wolverines, along with shortstop Abby Ramirez and first baseman Tera Blanco, hitting over .400 this year. Betsa anchors a pitching staff that has been stellar this year, with Betsa’s 1.6 Ks/inning putting her on pace to nearly equal her superhuman numbers from last year. Aside from the big names, the team is stacked valuable contributors occupying every roster spot. Whether it’s just a function of a larger roster at their disposal, the depth afforded to this Wolverines team dwarfs that of the Warriors, who boast one of the best bench units in their league.
While this Michigan team is talented, talent alone is not enough to climb to the precipice of college sports. This is where the Warriors/Wolverines analogy must diverge slightly; while the Warriors are led by a capable but inexperienced coach in Steve Kerr, the Wolverines are driven by a living legend who will soon be the winningest softball coach in the history of the NCAA. Hutchins’ drive for excellence and her love for the game and for her players is evident in the camaraderie and execution they display each game. While Hutchins may be too reliant on the bunt for my tastes, it is mitigated by the fact that, through Hutch’s tutelage, everyone on the team can bunt well. Where other teams falter against the Wolverines via errors and other mental mistakes, the Wolverines maneuver the path to victory seamlessly. Last year’s team was a fundamentally excellent team that was mentally resilient against any opposition they faced, until they faced a more talented team in Lauren Haeger’s Florida Gators. Haeger has since graduated, while this Wolverines team will be one of the most talented Hutchins has ever managed. With the weight of expectations comes the need to manage egos, as has been shown by Kerr’s spats with Draymond Green throughout the NBA season, but that seems to be less of a problem in college athletics. This Michigan team should be fully on board with the mission for a championship. Hutchins will also need to fiddle with the pitching rotation to find a consistent number 2 starter behind Betsa, after the graduation of the rock-solid Haylie Wagner. But Blanco and Sara Driesenga have both demonstrated an ability to dominate at the college level, and given Hutchins’ 31 years of experience under her belt, we can expect that she will make the most of her options. Last year’s team went 60-8; given the strength of this team, as well as the lack of Minnesota or Iowa on the regular season schedule, this year’s iteration should challenge Hutchins’ all-time best record of 65-7 in 2005. That 2005 team went on to win the championship. Barring some sort of catastrophic injury, this year’s team is poised to do the same.
Long before its recent run of success, Golden State’s home court of Oracle Arena was renowned as one of the wildest in sports. Despite a recent history lacking much success, the Warriors’ fans remained rabidly devoted to their team. The Wolverines fans’ devotion runs just as deep. Alumni Field hosts sellout crowds at basically every home game, no matter who is coming to town. Maize and blue-clad fans usually outnumber the home crowd at away games, too. As long as you don’t insult them by hawking a mediocre product on and off the field, Michigan fans are as loyal as they come. In a symbiotic arrangement, the fans provide an electric atmosphere for every home game in return for getting to watch some of the best ball in the country. Every game last year was a memorable experience in itself. It was a privilege to follow Michigan softball last year, and I can’t wait for what this season has in store.