Broken record, bus breakdowns and a no-hitter: Inside Michigan softball’s adventurous road trip

Feb. 24 had the potential to be a historic night for Michigan’s softball program and head coach Carol Hutchins.

The 38th-year coach had a chance to break the NCAA softball wins record against Army, but the game never happened because of travel issues.

The 19th-ranked Wolverines’ flight to North Carolina for the Duke Invitational was delayed several hours because of mechanical issues, and the team did not arrive in Durham until just before scheduled game time.

The game was canceled and Hutchins’ record-setting moment was pushed back to the following day, but the delay proved to be a reoccurring theme on Michigan’s latest 10-day road trip that included Hutchins’ new milestone, a no-hitter, broken down buses and ample time for team bonding.

“It was just fun to be with our teammates,” sophomore Sierra Kersten said of the team’s 8-2 trip. “You just kind of laugh and just keep rolling with it. I think that’s what I love about this team the most. They just roll (with the punches).”

The Wolverines opened the trip Feb. 25 with a 3-0 win over Northern Kentucky, Hutchins’ 1,675th career victory that surpassed Arizona great Mike Candrea.

After the game, congratulation messages poured in from former players and peers. Duke head coach Marissa Young, a former Wolverine, also presented her old coach with balloons and a gift before the Wolverines and 13th-ranked Blue Devils faced off in a doubleheader shortly after.

Northern Kentucky also has been coached by a former Wolverine, Kathryn Gleason.

“As I tell everybody, my greatest joy is when I get to see all the former players that are such an important part of my life,” Hutchins said. “As I told both Kathy and Marissa, the record is theirs. The record is every kid who’s played in the program.

“I think the most important thing that we like to remember when you’re in athletics is it’s a people business, and being connected to my people is still what I value most. I really like home runs, I really like when we throw no-hitters, but we’re connected for life. It’s the most meaningful part of the whole gig for me.”

Because Michigan’s game against Army was canceled, it added a game against Elon on Feb. 28 in North Carolina. The Wolverines cruised to an 11-3 victory, but they had to wait for an issue with the bus’s gas line to get fixed.

The bus was repaired and functional for the team’s short drive to Chapel Hill the following day for a game against North Carolina, but Michigan ran into more travel complications last Wednesday morning.

About 3 hours into a roughly 7-hour drive to Lexington, Kentucky for the John Cropp Classic, the bus broke down again driving through mountains.

To kill the time, some players studied, scrolled through social media or posted Tik Toks, while others stood in a circle on the side of the road to play hacky sack, courtesy of freshman Annabelle Widra.

Widra said she picked up the hobby at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t say the bus breaking down was a bad thing,” Widra said. “I truly think they are great memories just to remember for the rest of our lives, and I do think it brings our team together. Even if we have a tough loss, we still love each other. We still come together the next morning, just being around each other, letting each other know, ‘Hey, I have your back. I just think a lot of that brings in our team chemistry and I feel that being a part of Team 45, we remind each other every day just how much we appreciate Team 45.”

Hutchins wasn’t as amused by the delays. The team had to scrap their lunch plans for the day and discovered a new definition of ordering “curbside pizza.”

Finally, after about 4 hours, their new bus arrived and they were back on the road, arriving at their hotel in Lexington at about 8 pm

“Let’s just say I thought the kids handled it better than I did,” Hutchins said. “I wasn’t happy. But we made the best of it. We had pizza on the bus, they got to play hacky sack on the side of the road. I tried to hitchhike to Kentucky; nobody would pick me up. It all worked out.”

Michigan’s travel debacles didn’t appear to have much of an effect on its performance on the field. In the first game of the tournament, senior Alex Storako twirled a gem in an 8-0 win over No. 10 Kentucky.

The Wolverines followed with a 13-0 win over Kent State on Friday afternoon before falling to the Wildcats 9-2 later that night.

Storako bookended the trip with her first career no-hitter in a 1-0 eight-inning win over Drake on Saturday. She improved to 10-0 and lowered her ERA to 0.75.

“I don’t like to make too much of anything that’s an accomplishment in March because we’re still in this long journey and process,” Hutchins said. “We’re trying to get to the end of the year, and we want the end of the year to be as late as possible. Alex is pitching fantastic for us, and I want her to just stay in her process. Our goal is never a no-hitter. I mean, that’s a great day. Just like if you go 4 for 4 at the park, you’re having a great day. You got to stay on your journey and not make more of it than it is and not make less of it than it is. We’re trying to get to June.”

After the beginning of the year 3-3, Michigan returned home with a 13-6 record. It hosts its first home series of the season this week, playing Kent State twice on Thursday before wrapping up with one game Sunday.

“I would say, overall, we’ve had a very successful first month,” Widra said. “We have great wins. Do we have losses? We do, but no team is going to go undefeated. I think those losses have allowed us to grow and continue to figure out what works for Team 45. I think going into Big Ten play we’re hungry and we’re ready to put up the fight to get to June.”

And the Wolverines once again have the NCAA wins record holder leading the way. Hutchin’s first broke it in 2016 before Candrea overtook the No. 1 spot during the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season.

“It was kind of surreal,” Kersten said of Hutchins’ record. “It’s kind of one of those things you never really think — not never think is gonna happen but you’re like, ‘Wow, I actually get the blessing to be here and experience this. I think just pure excitement for her because she is the most person-oriented person on this planet and just cares about who we are as women. I think that’s really hard to find these days and really special about her and something that I appreciate most.”

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