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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Michigan Profile: Lacking Romero, Wolverines Must Retool

General Overview/2016 Recap: In a highly-anticipated rematch of the 2015 Championship Series, the Wolverines took a stunning shutout, run-rule loss at the hands of the Florida Gators on the season's second day, by a score of 8-0 in five innings.

The Wolverines breezed through the ACC/Big Ten challenge with ease in Tallahassee, Florida, twice besting then-#13 Florida State and fellow ACC foe Virginia Tech.

Without Sierra Romero for the first time in years, the Wolverines'
middle infield will take on a new look.
(Photo: Michigan Athletic Communications)

At the Mary Nutter Classic, the Wolverines got back on the right track, besting eventual champion Oklahoma, followed by run-rule victories over Oklahoma State and North Carolina State. A loss to Washington was followed by a win over Long Beach State to the finish out the tournament.

At the Judi Garman Classic, a perfect 5-0 record awaited Carol Hutchins' squad, which included wins over Missouri; Long Beach State; Cal; North Carolina; and Oregon State.

Michigan began conference play in shocking fashion with a loss to Northwestern that saw the two teams score a combined twenty-five runs. The Wolverines would come back and win the series, following that with a sweep of Indiana and a series win over Nebraska.

The Wolverines swept four straight conference series' to close out the regular season, besting Ohio State; Maryland; Penn State; and Rutgers during that span.

At the B1G tournament, the Wolverines easily made their way through the first two games before taking the loss in an extra-inning affair against Minnesota for the conference title.

The Wolverines dominated a Regional field that included ranked Notre Dame and swept a hard-fought Super Regional against Missouri.

The Wolverines suffered from a bit of a scheduling snafu at the Women's College World Series, After a victory over LSU to open the series, the Wolverines lost a late game to Oklahoma on Saturday and had to turn around and play Florida State in an elimination game early the next morning. Nevertheless, the Wolverines offense went cold and were dominated by the opposing pitching, losing a 1-0 battle to the Noles to head home prematurely.

Around the Horn in 2016: (reflects departed players)
P – Megan Betsa; (Sara Driesenga)
C – Aidan Falk
1B – Tera Blanco
2B – (Sierra Romero)
3B – Lindsay Montemarano
SS – Abby Ramirez
LF – Kelly Christner
CF – (Sierra Lawrence)
RF – (Kelsey Susalla)
DP – Faith Canfield/Amanda Vargas
Carrying the Clipboards: Head coach Carol Hutchins remains one of the finest softball minds in the nation. The winningest coach in Division 1 history and a winner of some 1,400 career games, Hutchins is solely responsible for the Wolverines program's rise to a top national contender on an annual basis. Hutchins led her program to their third Women's College World Series berth in four years in 2016 and earned the Big Ten regular-season title for the ninth straight season.

Bonnie Tholl, Hutchins' longtime assistant and currently the Wolverines' Associate Head Coach, can be given the credit for the development of the Wolverines' 'outies'; she'll have her work cut out for her to replace two starters in Lawrence and Susalla who became stalwarts of both the team's batting order and defense as their careers rolled on. Lawrence twice earned all-American honors while under Tholl's tutelage, and Kelly Christner's meteoric rise can be attributed, at least in part, to Tholl's work, as well.

Jennifer Brundage remains one of the most underappreciated pitching coaches in the nation; the former UCLA hurler has spent nearly two decades in the maize and blue, presiding over nine conference Pitchers of the Year and seventeen All-Americans. The Wolverines pitching staff posted an ERA just above 2.00 at 2.04 in 2016 and reigning all-American and Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Megan Betsa posted a sub-2.00 mark in more than two hundred innings of work.

Additions: The class of 2020 includes catcher Abby Skvarce; outfielder Thais Gonzalez; infielder Madison Uden; and outfielder Haley Hoogenraad.
Subtractions: Departing the program after last season was a large graduating-senior class that included Sierra Romero; Sierra Lawrence; Sara Driesenga; Kelsey Susalla; Mary Sbonek; Olivia Richvalsky; and Lauren Connell. Romero, Lawrence, and Susalla will all require replacing in the starting lineup, as will Driesenga as the #2 pitcher in the staff.

Scheduling: *This article will be updated when the team's regular-season schedule is released.

The Wolverines will again match up against the Gators of Florida at the South Florida-hosted season-opening tournament in an early-season rematch of the 2015 championship series.

Hutchins' squad will travel to Raleigh, North Carolina for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge; they will participate in the grouping that includes conference fellow Minnesota and ACC opponents Notre Dame and North Carolina State.

At the Mary Nutter Classic, the Wolverines will take on Florida State; Texas A&M; and Arizona State from the Power Five, as well as New Mexico State and Bethune Cookman.

In conference play, the Wolverines will travel to Ohio State and Rutgers and host Indiana, among others. Without a meeting on the conference schedule, they'll also play a home-and-home series against archrival Michigan State, the results of which will not count toward the conference standings.
Potential Strengths/Weaknesses ---
Strengths – Carol Hutchins also seems to find a way to win. Megan Betsa returns to the circle, as do several of the program's top offensive producers from a season ago. Kelly Christner, Aidan Falk, Tera Blanco, Abby Ramirez, and others should make a real impact and any could breakout to a national award-contender any time during the year.

Weaknesses – Of any program, Michigan seems to have the least difficulty in replacing graduated players; however, they'll have several gaping holes to fill going into this season. Betsa seemed to have some lingering back issues in the latter part of last season and it remains to be seen if those issues will be fully behind her when the regular season rolls around. Minnesota has come on strong in the least several seasons, providing the first real challenge in some time to Michigan's reign atop the conference, and the Wolverines may once-again have their hands full in retaining the "top spot".

Outlook for 2017: The Wolverines remain loaded on offense, despite losing the reigning Player of the Year, and have several young offensive stalwarts who are primed and ready to prove themselves as consistent stars at a high level. Pitching will be a question, as Betsa may not be able to carry such a large workload if her injury questions linger and the depth is more slight than in the earlier part of her career. Michigan remains one of the nation's premier programs and I expect them to have another stellar regular season, as per usual, but I predict they'll meet a match in the Super Regionals and will be watching the World Series from their couches this year.

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