Michigan has familiar look in WCWS win
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Behind a determined effort in the circle from a bulldog junior with Michigan roots and key plays from a senior shortstop who not only anchors the infield defense but also is the team's emotional center, Michigan opened play in the Women's College World Series with a decisive win.
And just for good measure, a big-hitting freshman knocked a ball out of the park.
Stop me if you've heard this song before.
Jennie Ritter and Jessica Merchant weren't on the field Thursday night against Alabama. Neither was Samantha Findlay (although there was a Findlay, younger sister Angela). But there was more than a hint of 2005 in the air. Behind a three-hitter from Nikki Nemitz in the circle, three hits from Teddi Ewing at the plate and a blast from Amanda Chidester, the Wolverines routed the Crimson Tide 6-1 in their first World Series game since clinching the national championship four years ago against UCLA.
While Alabama uncharacteristically imploded in its second consecutive trip to Oklahoma City, and the third overall for the team's seniors, Michigan showed no nerves in what was the first World Series game for every member of the team save the coaching staff.
Nemitz set the Tide down in order in the bottom of the first, and after a walk, a hit-by-pitch and a single loaded the bases with two outs in the top of the second, Ewing drew a bases-loaded walk to bring home the game's first run.
"We do have a real sense of composure about us," Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. "I attribute it to, we've been operating at this level for a while [this season]. And we have kids like [Nemitz], who the kids do look up to, and Teddi, who's getting it done for us here.
"When she gets it done, the kids really respect Teddi because she has just been such a quality Michigan kid. She's the epitome of a team leader. And it's been harder for people to follow her earlier in the season because she wasn't getting it done herself. But boy, she's really been doing well as of late. And that really helps her because that's the kid you want leading your team."
Ewing is not Merchant, nor has anyone in Ann Arbor asked her to duplicate the feats of one of the best power-hitting infielders in recent memory. But in starting every game at shortstop since taking over for Merchant the year after the 2005 title, Ewing has been a defensive rock, a team leader and, at times, an important offensive factor.
The latter element was certainly the case last season, when she hit a career-best .347 with 18 stolen bases in 59 games. It wasn't the case for much of this season. Entering the NCAA tournament, Ewing was hitting just .182 (20-for-110).
After Thursday's outburst, she's now hitting .438 (7-for-16) in six postseason games.
"I'm just really trying to stick to what I do, play one-pitch softball and have fun doing it," Ewing said. "I've got nothing to lose; this is my last go-around. So [I'm] just really trying to go out there, have fun and play for Michigan and just go for it."
But if Ewing provided the bass line for the win against Alabama, Nemitz offered the lead vocals. Until the Crimson Tide scratched out a run on two hits, one of which might have been the result of a faulty first step in the outfield on what became a double, the junior from just outside Detroit was cruising toward a one-hit shutout.
"I thought Nikki commanded the game and gave us some great confidence," Hutchins said.
Although not heavily recruited on the national scene -- coming out of Michigan, she didn't play in the high-level travel-ball tournaments that fuel the process -- Nemitz met with some success from the outset in college softball. She went 22-6 with a 1.88 ERA as a freshman and was named first-team all-conference in the Big Ten. But with little more than the heat she was used to throwing past overmatched high school batters, she was nowhere near the pitcher who stymied one of the nation's top lineups Thursday.
"I'm a hundred times different; I mean, I'm a completely new person," Nemitz said last week of her evolution in the circle. "I trust myself. I mean, coming in, I knew I wanted to do big things when I was a freshman. But I'm from Michigan; I'm from a little city near Detroit. Nobody has ever heard of me. I was very low-recruited. I knew I could [succeed] inside me, but I hadn't really proved it to myself that I could actually compete at this level.
I knew I could [succeed] inside me, but I hadn't really proved it to myself that I could actually compete at this level. Now I know it, and now I'm out to beat people.
"Now I know it, and now I'm out to beat people."
As with Ritter, Nemitz took a leap forward as a sophomore. Ritter went 24-8 with a 1.18 ERA in her second season; Nemitz went 21-4 with a 1.04 ERA. And just as Ritter then assumed a spot in the conversation as one of the nation's top pitchers the following season, Nemitz has done the same, albeit quietly, this season. She's added movement and a changeup to the rise ball she arrived with. And the drop ball Hutchins last week said would be the final piece of the puzzle was already looked pretty solid Thursday night as it dropped under Amanda Locke's bat for a strikeout in the third inning.
The evolution from talented thrower to precise pitcher hasn't been easy, but working with pitching coach Jen Brundage (known more commonly to her pupils and even her boss as "Biggie"), she's used a walk-on's attitude to craft an All-American's game.
"I think that some pitchers have naturally loose wrists," Brundage said. "They've got the tools, and it's easy for some of those pitchers than for others. But it can be taught. Like I don't necessarily think it was real easy for Nikki to learn it, but she has such a strong desire, probably to be the best, that she came in open-minded and was willing to do whatever it took and try anything. So she worked really hard to get the kind of spin and the movement she has."
Hutchins wouldn't say after the Alabama game which pitcher she would start in Friday's winner's bracket game (which will be against Florida, although that wasn't known when Hutchins addressed the topic). Sophomore Jordan Taylor is at worst option No. 1-B for the Wolverines, if not an entirely equal partner in the pitching chores. But that was also the case for much of 2005, when Lorilyn Wilson put up good numbers in the regular season.
When it came to the run to the championship, the ball always seemed to find its way into Ritter's hand. And four years later, there's another Michigan native with a certain bulldog mentality and nearly unhittable pitches.
"I personally feel that she has a lot of the qualities," Hutchins said of the similarities between Ritter and Nemitz. "And you have to give the credit to Brundage. I don't mean to take away from either of those kids -- Nikki is a great kid, and her dad's a coach; Ritter's dad is a coach. But Biggie teaches them so well; the mental aspect of how you approach the game, I wasn't really worried about them because that's what we teach. And it starts with Brundage, because she's with them every day."
Some things never change.
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.