By Colleen Thomas, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 12, 2012
After playing multiple tournaments in nonconference play, when it would face three or four teams for just a single game each weekend, the No. 20 Michigan softball team jumped to a new format for the Big Ten season.
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Instead of playing a conference opponent in a one- or two-game stint, the Big Ten has decided to institute three-game series for this year’s conference schedule.
The Wolverines have dived into the heart of their conference schedule and are already seeing positive effects of the switch.
“The format is like the (NCAA) Super Regional,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “The Super Regionals are so intense — you’re playing the same team over and over. Sweeping a team is difficult, but the good thing is the team learns to rebound from a loss.
“It’s about the rebounding. They’re going to be more resilient when it matters.”
Michigan has already overcome a mid-series setback, as it dropped the second game of a doubleheader against Indiana on March 31 before bouncing back to take the final game and the series the next day.
Senior first baseman Amanda Chidester likes the switch, too. As a leader of the squad, she’s seen multiple schedule formats and knows how tough a long series can be.
“I think it’s definitely a challenge,” Chidester said. “Before in the Big Ten, you’d get through those games and you wouldn’t need as much energy, but when we got to regionals, we needed to come up with that energy because you needed it to get through.
“Now, we’re being challenged with this (format) at the beginning of the season. I think it’s going to help us so much when we get to regionals because it’s not going to be anything new to us.”
The new system should benefit Michigan, especially with inexperienced pitchers in the circle. The Wolverines rotate between two freshmen — lefty Haylie Wagner and right-hander Sara Driesenga — and in some cases, both pitchers will see action in all three games, either in the starting role or in relief.
Despite the experience the young Wolverine squad will gain as conference play continues, Hutchins does find one negative.
“(Last) Saturday, we got on the field at 12:30 p.m. and we walked off at 7:30 p.m. — we were out there for seven hours of softball,” Hutchins said. “That’s a long time to be intense. Those kids are mentally drained — physically, probably so, but mentally, it’s very taxing.”
MAC ATTACK: On the Michigan Athletics Coaches' Show, hosted by Doug Karsch, on Monday, Hutchins noted that a team can be dangerous when it gets an early lead, but she went on to praise her team for its ability to come back in those types of situations.
Senior shortstop Stephanie Kirkpatrick also mentioned how, in practice, the team does drills where they’re down by a few runs to gain confidence and keep calm in those situations.
But when talking about the team’s next opponent, Western Michigan, Hutchins noted that the Broncos were a hot team that was playing with purpose, despite a mediocre record.
And Hutchins was right in saying that a team can be a real threat when it gets ahead — the Broncos took a 1-0 lead in the sixth inning off a two-out single up the middle, and they never relinquished it.
Western Michigan played with confidence and tallied five hits off Driesenga, who was credited with the loss.
The loss marks the first time since 2000 that the Wolverines were shut out by a nonconference opponent. Michigan beat two other Mid-American Conference teams earlier this season, Eastern Michigan and Bowling Green.
What nonconference team beat the Wolverines in 2000? Ohio, another Mid-American Conference team.
OUT OF SYNC: After putting 27 runs on the board in three games against Ohio State last weekend, Michigan couldn’t score against Western Michigan.
So what happened to the offense?
“Our kids absolutely didn’t show up,” Hutchins said. “(Our) hitters were lazy-minded, (and they lacked) intensity. Winning (at Ohio State) made them soft.”
The Wolverines recorded four hits in the shutout loss to the Broncos, but Hutchins didn’t blame the entire team.
“I thought Sara pitched well, and she pitched well enough to win,” Hutchins said. “She gave up a run and clearly couldn’t afford to.”
But when the pitching was on target, the offense didn’t show up. After the Western Michigan loss, Hutchins noted how two important aspects of the game haven’t lined up in recent weeks.
“Pitchers don’t have to win the game for us,” Hutchins said. “They have to help keep us in the game and trust the defense will pick up the ball, and trust that the offense will do something for them.”