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.
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.
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.
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.