Protect The Block 'M'

April 3, 2007

One of the top concerns that many people have regarding collegiate softball is the issue of fairness relating to the contrast of climates around the country at the start of the sports regulated season.  Many believe it is unfair to those schools in the northern states with winter climates compared to the southern schools that are at an advantage being able to practice outside year round. 

While many talk about the issue, there is one school in particular that decided they weren't going to settle for using the excuse.  The University of Michigan Wolverines decided on the first day they met for the 2005 season that they would not settle for anything less than a national championship.  No excuses.

"We had the courage to say our ultimate goal was to win a national championship," said then-senior Jessica Merchant.  "It was something we talked about, thought about, and bought into completely."

While they had their goals set, they knew it wasn't going to be an easy task.  The Wolverines started off the season with a one-run loss to 17th-ranked Baylor.  At that time Michigan was ranked eighth in the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) poll and 15th by ESPN/USA Softball. 

Despite the minor set back of the first game, the team went on to win the next 32 straight before incurring a loss to conference rival Iowa.  By this time Michigan had already climbed their way to a No.1 ranking in both softball polls.  The team only suffered one additional loss (Penn State) before taking the crown as both the conference regular season and Big Ten Tournament champions.

But these titles were not won easily.  As the regular season concluded with Michigan having to sweep Northwestern, who shared the conference lead throughout the season, to obtain ownership of the Big Ten.

The run for the national championship then started off strong, with Michigan knocking out Canisius, Seton Hall and North Carolina before taking out Washington in a heated three-game battle for the Regional crown. 

The Wolverines then advanced to the Women's College World Series (WCWS) where they bypassed DePaul and Texas with back-to-back shutouts.  The teams truest test of determination started with what has been nicknamed "The Marathon Game."  In an evening matchup with Tennessee, neither team was able to score a single run until Tennessee homered in the 11th inning, ending the game at 1:21 a.m.  Michigan returned to face the Vols the next day with one last chance at history.  They persevered, coming out on top, 3-2, thanks to a two-run homer by Stephanie Bercaw.

For the first time in program history, Michigan had made it to the finals of the WCWS.  Not just adding to the record books, but also building on the foundation for future Michigan success.

"A philosophy we have here at Michigan, in regards to our softball program is that your job is to leave the program better than you found it," said associate coach Bonnie Tholl. 

They had already achieved many firsts that year to better the program: their No.1 national ranking, a program-best 65 wins, the 32-game winning streak, defeating a top-ranked team (Arizona), and being named a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.  But the team was not satisfied.

Hutchins' program has been so successful because of her ability to bring the most out of individuals like Jennie Ritter, who closed out the title-clinching win in the 2005 NCAA Championship game before leaving Michigan as the school's all-time strikeouts leader.

In game 1, of the best-of-three championship series, the defending champion UCLA Bruins shut out Michigan, 5-0, with the dreams of a national championship nearing elimination.

"Our team, our unit, had the most amazing bond and trust in each other that we were going to win," said Merchant.  "Nothing was going to stop us, get us down, or get in our way."

They came back the next day to top UCLA, 5-2, with a two-run homer in the fifth inning by Becky Marx, sending the teams to the final possible game of the WCWS.

Michigan would now have the opportunity to protect its dream.

"We bring you to Michigan to take care of Michigan," said head coach Carol Hutchins.  "Your job is to protect that block M."

Not only was the team determined to protect it, they were going to leave their program better than they found it.  They were going to leave it with a national championship as part of its history.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Michigan and UCLA were tied at 1 through nine innings of play when then-freshman Samantha Findlay blasted a home run to left field to put the wolverines up 4-1.  The bottom of the inning ended with Ritter, who finished her career as Michigan's all-time strikeout leader, fanning yet another opponent and Merchant catching the final out.

"It was the pinnacle of what a perfect season should be," said Merchant.  "I took in everything at that national title game, the emotion, the nerves, the smiles; I will never forget any part of it."

The 2005 season may have been the crowning season for the Wolverines, but the on-field success was nothing new to the program.  Since Hutchins inception as head coach of the program in 1985, Michigan has never endured a losing season.  Not only do they boast winning records but also hold 10 Big Ten regular-season championships, eight Conference Tournament titles, nine Regional Championship crowns and now one National Championship.

For such great success one has to look at Hutchins, who has been there to lead the team for 25 years, including 23 as head coach.  The success she has had can be seen throughout the history of the program, especially with the more-recent success and awards.  In 2000 she moved to the top of the all-time wins list for all Michigan coaches, male or female, and recently passed the 1,000-win mark.  She is also two wins shy of taking over the sixth spot on the list of all-time winningest coaches in the NCAA.  She has also earned nine Big Ten Coach of the Year honors, eight NCAA Regional Coach of the Year awards and a pair of NFCA National Coach of the Year nods.

Together with her coaching staff (Tholl and Jennifer Brundage) she has garnered Great Lakes Region Coaching Staff of the Year laurels in six of the last nine seasons (1998, '99, 2001, '02, '04, '05) and was named Speedline/NFCA National Coaching Staff of the Year for the first time in 2005. 

"It's easy to identify Hutch's passion to compete and our student-athletes are just a reflection of the leadership," said Tholl, who is not only the associate coach to Hutchins, but also played for the maize and Blue from 1988-91.  "Her passion and leadership provided me with a wonderful college experience and really laid the foundation for how I wanted to be as a coach."

In her 25 years at Michigan, the Hall of Fame coach Hutchins has mentored 35 All-Americans and 12 Big Ten Player of the Year honorees.

More proof of the importance of protecting the block M is the postseason success and honors the team has had.  The program has made an appearance in 14 NCAA National Championship Tournaments (1992, '93, '95, '96, '97, '98, '99, 2000, '01, '02, '03, '04, '05, and `06).  They also boast 35 total All-America accolades, 12 Big Ten Player of the Year recipients, 10 Big Ten Pitchers of the Year and nine Big Ten Freshman of the Year honorees.  All during Hutchins tenure.

The success is also eminent in the classroom.  Michigan players have accumulated 82 Academic All-Big Ten awards, and eight Academic All-American honors.  In December of 2006, the NFCA awarded the storied coach with the highest honor, an induction into their Hall of Fame.  Her former player Merchant was not surprised.

"I learned so much more from Hutch than how to hit a softball," said Merchant.  "I learned life lessons that I will take with me for the rest of my life.  She truly is one of my heroes."

When asked about the honor, Hutchins was extremely modest.

"It is an enormous honor to be put into a Hall of Fame with all the people that you've spent your entire life looking up to," she said.  "The honor really isn't about me, it's about Michigan and the players that have been apart of the program." 

In the end, it's about protecting the block M.