See the cabbage, hit the cabbage.
That was the message Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins sent to her players during a batting practice session in early April. They were pressing at the plate in recent games, discouraged when hard hit balls were caught. Hutchins knew the hitters were talented and their swings were technically sound. The issue was mental. Out came the produce.
Cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, and several other fruits and veggies replaced softballs and were ready for action when the squad showed up for practice. The hitters, pitchers, and even the coaches took their whacks, connecting with ease and making a beautiful mess. The frustrations faded, the players relaxed, and a great offense got even better.
In this, her 32nd season as Michigan’s head coach, Hutch, as she’s known, became the sport’s all-time wins leader. She guided the Wolverines to their ninth straight Big Ten title, 22nd straight NCAA Tournament, and an appearance in the Super Regionals for the 12th time in the past 13 years. After going 3-0 in last weekend’s regionals, the No. 2 overall seed stays home to face Missouri on Saturday and Sunday. The winner of the best-of-three series earns a spot in the eight-team World Series in Oklahoma City. Michigan reached the finals there last season.
In a sport dominated by schools in warm weather regions, Michigan is an anomaly. When it won the national championship in 2005, it became the first school east of Oklahoma or north of Berkeley to do so. The NCAA has crowned a champ since 1982, and until the last four years all but five have come from California or Arizona. Softball’s elite programs have shifted from the Pac-12 to the SEC—Florida has won the last two titles and the SEC made up eight of the 16 regional hosts this year—but Ann Arbor remains home to a juggernaut.
Selling the University of Michigan to prospective students is not terribly difficult. Many will overlook the harsh winters because of the reputable academics and a top-ranked college town. But softball players start the season on a six-week, 25-game road trip, and it often doesn’t feel like softball weather in Big Ten country until the regular season is over. Yet Michigan still reels in top talent.
Gayle Blevins built great programs at Indiana and Iowa before retiring in 2010 with the second most wins of all time. Hutchins was a grad assistant at Indiana in 1981 and the two remain close. “You can’t change it,” Blevins says of the cold weather. “Carol accepts it and sells what is special about Michigan—and that’s the people. Players make connections that will last long after they graduate. Last year I was at the World Series and it was amazing how many people came back just to support the team and Hutch.”
Dorian Shaw, a Burke, Virginia native who graduated in 2011 and is now an assistant coach at Stanford, says the quality of education along with the campus’ diversity and cultural events made Michigan an easy choice. “I could go to the grocery store and someone would ask how my game went,” she added. “There is an investment in softball in the area. I didn’t want to be part of a program that was in existence just because it had to be. I wanted to be part of a program that people outside of it were proud of.”
Tickets for the regional round at Alumni Field sold out in minutes. The Super Regional sale didn’t make it past season ticket holders. That the 2,800-seat stadium is routinely packed for regular season games is a far cry from Hutchins’ playing days. “I didn’t have the vision for this,” she says.
Title IX of the Education Amendment Act was passed in 1973, but progress was slow at first. As an undergrad on the softball and basketball teams at Michigan State in 1978, Hutchins, a Lansing, Michigan native, was displeased with the lack of financial support her teams received compared to the men. As The Michigan Daily wrote last year in a story reflecting on Title IX’s impact, “[Hutchins] and her teammates sued the university before the federal Office of Civil Rights. The court ordered universities to stop discriminating against athletes and teams on the basis of gender.”
“I call myself a Title IX boomer,” Hutchins says. “Not a day goes by that I don’t remember those days. I make sure all my kids understand the essence of the legislation that changed their world before their world even started. It’s the duty of all women’s sports coaches to make sure their kids don’t take it for granted. Just because we’ve come so far doesn’t mean we’re there yet. We have to stay vigilant. If people took care of women’s sports the way they have men’s sports, we wouldn’t have to fight and claw to get where we’ve gotten.”
Junior third baseman Lindsay Montemarano says the team has watched films on Title IX and one of the themes for this season is “just being blessed to play.” She said Hutchins doesn’t often talk about herself, but if she did, she might recall raking the field herself or not having practice uniforms. Blevins remembers their year together at Indiana and Hutchins’ beat-up car, nicknamed “Death.” Since their field had no storage, they’d have to drive the equipment to the field for practices. Once, Blevins trailed her assistant and noticed softballs spilling on to the road. You see, “Death” had holes in the trunk. “We didn’t have unlimited equipment,” Blevins says. “We stopped and picked them up.”
After a year in Bloomington, Hutchins spent a season as the head coach at Ferris State before moving to Ann Arbor in 1983. She served as an assistant for two seasons before taking over in 1985. Since, she’s won nineteen Big Ten titles, more than the rest of the teams in the conference combined. Her secret sauces include motivational ability and a loose but demanding atmosphere.
“She knows when someone needs a hug, when to get in their face, and when to leave them alone,” says former All-American pitcher Jennie Ritter, a junior on the ’05 title team who is now an analyst for the Big Ten Network. Ritter needed Hutchins to get in her face and yell, so she did. Junior Megan Betsa, the star pitcher for this year’s Wolverines, requires a calming presence. Other players wouldn’t respond positively to that, she says. Hutchins makes advanced psychology sound simple: “I try to be what they want [me to be] instead of what I might want [to be].”
Hutchins admits that early in her career she cared too much about being liked by her players. While she believes student-athletes today are “softer” than in the past because parents don’t hold them as accountable, Hutchins’ standards haven’t changed over the course of 1,481 wins. “She makes you want to expect more out of yourself,” Ritter says.
If you’re not on a path to, as Hutchins preaches, “leave the program better than you found it,” her office is a “scary place,” according to several former players. Practices are planned to the minute. No individual player is above the team.
Ritter refers to her college self as a “diva” when it came to the softballs she pitched. “If the ball didn’t have the right type of seams and grip I wanted, I’d throw it in. It would mess with the rhythm of the game because I’d do it so often.” One practice, Hutchins brought Ritter a bucket of “the worst balls—seams coming off, slippery,” and had her throw until she became comfortable with them. Ritter, initially furious, worked at it for a week and never complained about another ball.
The lessons translate off the diamond. “Control what you can control” is another of Hutchins’ favorite sayings. For example, like every undergrad ever, Ritter was not a morning person in college. To Hutchins, this was an unacceptable attitude. “Ritter, you know it’s a choice to wake up and be grumpy? So why don’t you make the choice not to.” Huh. From that point on, Ritter awoke with a positive mindset and, as a result, tackled the day better.
Becky Marx Keogh, Ritter’s catcher her final two years, recently had her third child. “When I have to get up three or four times a night, I think of Hutch. Instead of being overwhelmed, I think, ‘Just one feed at a time,’” a reference to Hutchins’ “one pitch at a time” mantra. Keogh, who was also a volunteer coach under Hutchins, says her husband sometimes calls her “mini Hutch.” “Her voice is always in your head,” Keogh says. “It’s a good thing but it’s creepy.”
Ritter hammers home the point so many other players mention: Hutchins makes them a better person off the field. “More than anything—and I try not to tear up about this—she’s made me a stronger person. When you go through life as a woman, you fight an uphill battle. You fight to be heard and make a statement. By her example or what she says, she gives us the tools necessary to continue to be strong women in the real world.”
And, as the results prove, Hutchins has the necessary tools to win a ton of softball games. Knowing when and how to deploy those tools is critical. Softball is a long season with plenty of failure. Take for example, second baseman Sierra Romero, one of three finalists for Player of the Year. Her .588 on-base percentage, while good for sixth-best in the country, still means she does not reach base more than 40 percent of the time. And yet, negativity and doubt are quickly extinguished in the Michigan dugout. The produce-infused batting practice was not new. Hutchins pulled it out in the late 90s when her team was going through a rare hitting slump. Another team once hit water balloons. She might institute a “backwards day” where players use their non-dominant hand, and allows dance-offs between double-headers. Watch closely this weekend (Saturday at 3:00 ET and Sunday at noon, both on ESPN) and you’ll see Hutch give a player an M&M when she reaches third base. (Even on home runs, she’ll toss a few in the air as the player trots home.) “She knows players who play tight don’t play well,” Shaw says.
The Wolverines (49-5) have been loose and laser-focused all season. In last weekend’s regionals, they outscored their three opponents 20-2. Betsa pitched 17 innings, allowing two runs while striking out 24 and walking just one. She’s first in the country in strikeouts per seven innings. Hutchins considers herself the offensive coordinator, and she’s watched softball swing more in favor of the hitters over the years (so much so that she believes the mercy rule—invoked if a team leads by at least eight after five innings—is outdated). This year’s Michigan team, offensively, is perhaps the best in school history. The Wolverines rank first in the country in on-base percentage and runs per game, and third in batting average and homers per game. Michigan’s lineup is strong top to bottom, but Romero, certain to be a four-time All-American, and outfielder Sierra Lawrence (.560 on-base percentage) are the igniters.
Take two out of three from Missouri this weekend and Michigan would make its 12th World Series appearance—though even hinting that this is preordained would drive Hutchins crazy. In its first seven World Series trips, Michigan went a combined 2-14. Fueled by two one-run losses in 2004, they won it all as the No. 1 overall seed the next year. They’ve been three times since, including last year, when they navigated the double-elimination event before losing in the third game of the best-of-three finals to Florida.
There are no obvious answers to why the World Series was initially a house of horrors for Michigan, but the 2005 team was the first in program history to make winning it all a goal that was openly discussed. It’s become an annual aspiration since.
Such a lofty goal can be a double-edged sword. Montemarano says it’s not complacency but anxiety that poses the biggest threat. “It’s a matter of wanting something so bad that we tense up and don’t play our game.”
“We have the burden of expectation,” Hutchins says. “The kids don’t always realize that staying at the top is more difficult than getting there. Coming back from a season like last year, it’s a whole new mountain to climb this year. It’s not even about staying at the top, it’s about getting there again.” Fans and media assuming certain benchmarks—a conference title, a World Series appearance—is white noise that Hutchins hopes falls on deaf ears.
Even a veteran player can’t help considering the possibilities of a super-talented team fulfilling its potential. When Montemarano is congratulated for reaching the Super Regionals and thus delaying her summer vacation back home on Long Island, she can’t help but envision postponing it two more weeks. “Until June 8th!” she says. That’s when the World Series final would end.
Andrew Kahn is a freelance writer who covers softball, women’s basketball, and a variety of men’s sports. He has written for The Wall Street Journal and Newsday, among others. Find more of his writing at andrewjkahn.com, email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.