Commentary

UM pulls softball coach through loss

Wolverines' success helps Hutchins through hard times

Originally Published: May 23, 2009
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- There is a patch of land on the campus of the University of Michigan that represents everything that has made the school's softball program one of the cornerstones of a sport that will gather this coming week to celebrate its growth on its grandest stage in Oklahoma City.

To find this spot in Ann Arbor, just look for the Michigan flags topping the stands that rise skyward at the Wilpon Softball Complex. Then walk a few steps past the sparkling, three-year-old facility that rivals anything in the country and look for an unobtrusive, landscaped plot marked by two benches, a pair of trees and a small stone plaque.

[+] EnlargeMichigan Softball
Courtesy Jon LeFaive/Wolverine Photo Michigan swept Baylor in the Ann Arbor Super Regional to advance to the Women's College World Series.

It's where Michigan coach Carol Hutchins sat alone long after Saturday's game against Baylor had been won, the only noise the buzz of a leaf blower clearing away what was left by the 2,473 fans who had provided such a loud soundtrack earlier.

The stadium where Michigan went undefeated this season is a monument to the program's success. The small garden behind it is a monument to more than that.

Michigan is headed back to the Women's College World Series for the first time since winning the program's first national championship, and the first for any program east of the Mississippi River, in an epic series against UCLA in 2005. After three years of making the lesser of two trips in the super regional round, the tournament's No. 5 overall seed dispensed with the drama Saturday.

Trailing 1-0 after Baylor's Courtney Oberg hit a home run in the bottom of the second, the Wolverines rallied for four runs in the top of the third, three more in the fourth and cruised to a 7-1 win. Sophomore Jordan Taylor allowed just five hits in seven innings and senior shortstop Teddi Ewing, on the verge of becoming part of the first Michigan class to not reach a World Series in more than 15 years, had two hits and scored twice.

"I'm just so happy for my kids; they've worked so hard this year, and I have a number of kids who have been so close," Hutchins said as she recalled a super regional loss at Baylor in 2007 and complimented Bears coach Glenn Moore on his team's season. "It was clearly our turn. I felt like things went our way, and we made them go our way. And our kids just came out here -- they were determined to finish this off and get on with it."

There was also more to that sense of timing than just the disappointment of the past three seasons. As she spoke, Hutchins wore a ring with a brilliant blue stone in it. It wasn't the championship ring from 2005, but instead the ring commemorating the program's second Big Ten championship in 1993. It was the ring she long ago gave to her mother, Ivy, who passed away a few days before this past Christmas.

"I gave it to her after our second Big Ten championship and she wore it every day of her life," Hutchins said. "So of course, I wore it all season. I just totally believe in those things. We didn't lose a game on this field all season."

[+] EnlargeCarol Hutchins
Courtesy Jon LeFaive/Wolverine Carol Hutchins is in her 25th season as Michigan's coach, but her first without her mother.

It's Ivy's name that adorns the plaque between the benches outside the stadium. Attached to a concourse connecting the stadium with the softball offices, the small plot of land on which all three sit was donated this season by a group of softball alums, spearheaded by Tiffany Worthy and Lisa Mack, and unofficially dedicated without any pomp before the team's games against Iowa early in May.

On the plaque is a simple inscription: True Blue Through and Through.

As unaffected by success as she is successful, Hutchins at first tried to dissuade her former players from such a show on her behalf. But for once, they wouldn't listen.

"The alums said, 'Ivy will be here watching you,'" Hutchins said. "That [spot] is where she used to stand and wait for me all the time. And I thought about it today in the game a couple of times because I felt her there. I just felt we were going to win because I believe in those things."

When Hutchins was first hired at Michigan as an assistant coach in 1983, for the less than budget-breaking sum of $3,000 a year, her mom asked her when she was going to get a real job. Hutchins told her not to worry, that it would all work out in the end. And while Ivy was always the program's No. 1 fan, even a national championship didn't stop her from offering a typically maternal assessment of things in its moment of glory.

Two decades after questioning her daughter's career choice, Ivy was on hand for a championship celebration in Ann Arbor in the days after the win against UCLA.

"It's packed with all of my friends, people who don't even know me," Hutchins said. "And I come walking in and I get a standing ovation, [associate coach Bonnie Tholl] and I were walking in, and my mom was right there and goes, 'Where else would you get a standing ovation but a bar.'"

Hutchins is famously fiery -- even during a series in which just about everything went right for Michigan, she wasted little time striking up a heated conversation with an umpire after Taylor was called for an illegal pitch early in Saturday's game. She is also blunt in much the same way a two-by-four is blunt, breaking the silence at the opening of the postgame news conference with mock agitation: "You want me to say something?"

Yet after the players made their way to continue celebrating and things quieted, Hutchins talked about playing this season without her mother around to enjoy it. Her voice barely escaped a whisper as she credited Tholl and assistant coach Jen Brundage for helping her through a season that commenced even as her grieving began.

"This has gotten me through," Hutchins said of the season. "One of the things I thought to myself going into regionals, I go, 'We've got to keep playing because I won't be able to go into the summertime, when I used to see my mom more because I had more time.'

"I just wanted to keep playing. It's kept me going."

"To me, she's the same Hutch," said Tholl, who's worked with Hutchins as an assistant at Michigan since 1994, and a four-year starter at shortstop in Ann Arbor before that. "But she reminds [the players] -- you know, Mother's Day was just a couple of weeks ago, and she reminds them, 'Call your mom.' But so many of those kids look to Hutch as a mother figure as well; she's someone that they totally trust and someone who provides a goods structure and discipline for them. So they see her in that light and they hold her at a high standard that you would hold a family member."

Hutchins denied that she's any sort of mirror image of Ivy, but the mock frustration in her voice as she joked about the repetitive nature of coaching -- " It's like Groundhog Day every day" -- sounded a lot like a proud mom unable to resist a little gentle needling at the standing ovation that greeted her daughter.

Even from one generation to the next, some things never change.

"I think she's still as feisty as ever, still as competitive as ever," Tholl said. "But she's also very compassionate and very giving to her kids. What you see from Hutch is what you get."

Never more so than when she sits on the bench, a daughter alone with her mother.

Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.