Michigan hitting its stride as tourney approaches

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Hail to the victors, sure. But to the victors go the spoils?

Not for the University of Michigan softball team.

It has been nearly a year since the Wolverines captured the national title, and even in the afterglow of the weekend's Big Ten conference tournament title, it is evident that the months since Samantha Findlay's memorable home run against UCLA in last spring's Women's College World Series have been full of more physical trials and mental tribulations than championship spoils.

"People told me all along how hard this would be, and I really felt that I was prepared for it," legendary coach Carol Hutchins said before the conference tournament. "But it has really been as hard as everybody said."

By winning the first national title for any school east of the Mississippi, the Wolverines entered this season with every team from Westwood to Austin intent on knocking them from their perch. And during a 37-13 regular season that included a rare three-game losing streak (against ranked foes UCLA, Louisiana-Lafayette and Washington) and a second-place finish behind Northwestern in the Big Ten regular season, Michigan learned plenty about life on top of the mountain.

"I think the kids have really felt a lot of the pressure, but there really is no pressure," Hutchins said of her team. "It's all self-perceived."

Compounding the problem early on was the fact that Michigan graduated All-American shortstop Jessica Merchant at the center of things, forcing this year's seniors to adjust not only to their own new leadership roles, but do so under a level of scrutiny that not even a legend like Merchant (who is a volunteer assistant coach) experienced.

Given that learning curve, perhaps it's not surprising that, despite slipping from the top spot in the preseason polls to No. 13 in the most recent ESPN/USA Softball Top 25, Hutchins remains optimistic and confident about her team's postseason potential.

"I really feel the most important thing is we're starting to play together, we're starting to enjoy the game," Hutchins said. "And I feel the pressure is basically off, and it couldn't happen at a better time. The kids are feeling good, and they're playing the way they know how to play."

Of course, without the battery of pitcher Jennie Ritter and catcher Becky Marx, the Wolverines might not have weathered the storm. They give Hutchins a pair of seniors whose consistency has helped keep the team above water and free from panic.

In her second season after transferring to Michigan from Loyola (Chicago), Marx has gone from an unsung hero whose contribution last season couldn't fully be measured by a .233 batting average to a middle-of-the-order rock who paced the team's offense, hitting .350 with 12 home runs and 46 RBI entering NCAA tournament play.

But the unsung part of Marx's profile hasn't changed, and that rankles Hutchins a bit.

"I feel Becky Marx, even last year, didn't get enough attention, if you want to talk about somebody that has really been our glue," the coach said. "This year she's really been one of our leaders, and she is without a doubt one of our so-called stars."

When asked about the temptation to slack off and savor newfound celebrity that is offered by winning a title, Marx answered with a bemused, "Who does that?"

Marx began making her contribution to the 2006 season long before her first at-bat with runners in scoring position.

"The offseason was hard," she said, referring to her workouts with teammate Rebekah Milian. "We worked out in the weight room, did every single set that was ever listed for us, did more weights than they wanted and we hit every single day in November.

"This is my last year, and every other year I didn't think I had given it my all. And so it was easy at the end of the year, when you didn't do well, to be like, 'Well, I didn't give it my all.' So this year I'm going to give my all, and good or bad, I'm just going to see where it takes me."

Marx says she tries to lead by example more than anything else, leaving the official duties to co-captains Stephanie Bercaw and Grace Leutele. And in capably filling the void left by the departure of slugger Nicole Motycka, she's doing just that.

Ritter is the ace, the pitcher who emerged from the shadow of Cat Osterman and the stars of the Pac-10 to lead the Wolverines to a title. That starring role, in addition to 62 total wins and a 1.03 ERA during her sophomore and junior seasons, earned her an audition with the national team after the season.

It could have been heady stuff for a kid from Dexter, Mich., the kind of ego boost that might easily go to someone's head. But Ritter turned the experience into a self-imposed exercise in humility.

"Obviously, when you play with quality players all summer, you'll get better. ... Cheri Kempf [longtime pitching guru] was there for the September tryouts, which was nice because she could focus on what I was doing. I told her, 'I need to get better, just tell me what to do. I'm not trying to make the team, I just want to get better."

And remarkably, given the team in flux behind her and the stellar numbers she had already compiled in Ann Arbor, Ritter has gotten better. Entering the Big Ten tourney, Ritter was 24-8 with a career-best 0.70 ERA and 351 strikeouts in 209.2 innings. And all she did en route to a conference tournament crown in Evanston was throw an additional 19 shutout innings in picking up three wins against Michigan State, Indiana and Northwestern.

In fact, if not for her own rare mistakes, Ritter might be close to a shutout for the season. She's allowed just 21 earned runs all season, most coming from the 13 home runs she's already given up (after allowing just 16 in 288.2 innings last season).

"It's nice to know that if I don't give up a home run, there's probably a very small chance a run is going to score," said Ritter, a pitcher who exudes confidence, mixing smiles and glares in the circle. "But at the same time, I've got to get better. I've got to get better at hitting my spots. I think sometimes I get too lax. I get into a groove and start thinking, 'They're not picking it up, they're not hitting it.' "

While Ritter frets about the handful of pitches she hasn't located out of the thousands she's thrown, the fact that the pitcher who tossed the Wolverines to a championship last season is on pace to finish this season with better numbers in just about every category over which she has control is sure to keep many opposing coaches awake at night as the postseason progresses.

Without overlooking the contributions of fellow seniors Tiffany Haas, Leutele and Bercaw, Marx and Ritter are the cornerstones of this team. Along with Milian, they're the two returning regulars who have actually improved on last season's numbers. And they're a big part of the reason Michigan is still in the thick of the national title race after spending much of the season searching for an identity.

But they'll need help to get back to Oklahoma City.

"If you look throughout the lineup, what we need is for everybody to take turns contributing," Hutchins said. "It's what we were so good at last year, when everyone stepped up at some point. Right now, people are just beginning to step up, so it's like we're having late spring."

It certainly felt like the early days of the season at the Big Ten tournament, where the wind chill dropped low enough to merit using the term "wind chill" in May. But even amidst the chilly temperatures and rainy skies, the Wolverines did seem to be having fun playing the game. And wherever the chicken and egg fit in the line of succession, it's hard to miss how that joy coincides with increased contributions across the board.

Nowhere was that more noticeable than with Findlay. The sophomore gained fame with last season's postseason heroics but saw her batting average and power numbers tumble dramatically as pitchers exploited what seemed to be her overly aggressive approach at the plate (she needed fewer than 50 games this season to reach 43 strikeouts, her total in 72 games last season) and inconsistent protection behind her once Marx found a home in the No. 3 hole.

But in the raw numbers of eight hits and seven RBI in the last five games and anecdotal moments like coming through with an opposite-field RBI single after choking up on an 0-2 count against Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament, Findlay seems ready to once again put her stamp on May and June.

"It's funny, Sam fell into the leadership spot, as far as hitting that home run last year," Ritter said. "She's a great leader and she shows it with her bat. And unfortunately, when she's not having fun, we are flat. And she knows that, and we know that. When she has a fun day, we are fired up and ready to go, and she knows that. We've got to trust her; we believe in her and we know she can get it done."

From a home run in her first at-bat to a voice that carried across the parking lot as she supported Ritter from first base, Findlay was having fun and getting it done in the conference tournament. And she wasn't alone; the rest of Michigan's roster played up to the standard set by Marx and Ritter in running away with the title.

"Being carefree," Marx said, describing the biggest difference for the team in a late-season offensive surge. "I think everyone was so worried before; they weren't happy with how they were playing. I mean, once the [regular season] Big Ten title was taken away from us, we didn't have anything to lose. I think it's nice when the players know they have nothing to lose, and I think that's been the key for us lately."

It's a fresh outlook for a team that occasionally played like it was more worried about being as good as last year's squad than being better than the team in the opposite dugout this year.

"Going into [the postseason], we have nothing to lose," Marx concluded. "Nobody thinks we're going to get back to Oklahoma City."

Marx may discover the Wolverines have more support than she thinks, but as the postseason unfolds, opponents will find that when it comes to dethroning the champs, the real pressure still rests squarely on the challengers.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.