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Taken down early in the season, Michigan softball is now riding high in the NCAA Tournament

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ANN ARBOR – The Michigan softball team qualified for 27 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances from 1995 to 2022, and Bonnie Tholl served as an assistant coach on Carol Hutchins’ staff for all of those games.

Following Hutchins’ retirement following the 2022 season, Tholl was elevated to head coach. Replacing the NCAA’s all-time wins leader proved a challenging task, especially as a handful of top players moved elsewhere.

The Wolverines went 26-25 overall in 2023 and finished 10th in the Big Ten — their lowest finish ever — while missing the tournament. But Tholl and her program have bounced back in 2024 and enter the NCAA tournament a brave and confident bunch after beating Indiana in the Big Ten championship game on Saturday.

“When you look back, you always debrief and try to get your perspective of how you can improve a program and where we could have been better,” Tholl said Tuesday during a video conference with reporters ahead of Michigan’s tournament opener Friday against Kentucky in Stillwater, Oklahoma. “That’s what we spent all of this past summer doing, and without looking back, there are some valuable lessons that we learned, that I learned as a leader that I had to be better for my team and I had to be better for my staff had to guide. would ensure that our players perform better on the field.

“I really believe that you learn how to win by winning. And yes, losing builds character. We’ve heard that phrase many times, but winning shows your players what it takes to win and how to win. That’s exactly where we find ourselves now. Throughout this season we learned how to win, whether it was a close game, whether it was a come-from-behind game, whether it was a blowout. We’ve done it in so many different ways, and that’s a great place to be right now.

The Wolverines (41-16), victorious in 27 of their past 32 games, have picked up plenty of wins in the second half of the season and will need three more to advance to a Super Regional for the first time since 2016. open the regional double-elimination against Kentucky (30-22), one of 13 Southeastern Conference teams in the 64-team field.

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But if Michigan wants to make progress, it will likely have to meet host and No. 5 overall seed Oklahoma State (44-10) at some point.

“We proved we belong in the tournament,” said Keke Tholl, a senior captain who leads the team with 15 home runs. “To be honest, I don’t really worry about who we’re playing against because they just get in our way. As long as we play Michigan softball and put energy into each other, we’re in a good place.”

Keke Tholl was a role player on Michigan’s tournament teams in 2021 and 2022 before becoming an everyday mainstay in 2023. She had a breakout year with a career-high .289 average and 11 home runs, but took it personally when the Wolverines didn’t make the tournament. .

Six players remain on the 2022 team’s roster, and only two — shortstop Ella McVey and outfielder Ellie Sieler — were in the lineup against Central Florida when the Wolverines were eliminated in the regional. The group used last year’s disappointment as motivation.

“I think that fueled a lot of our fire,” Keke said. “After last season, no one ever wanted to feel that way again. No one ever wanted to be in that situation. I think we took that to heart. Many great people have built this program, and every day is a great opportunity to wear the Block M across our chests. I’m not going to say we failed, but we knew we weren’t playing at the right level and we never want that to happen again. I think that was a big part of our drive this year.”

This season was also not without its trials. Michigan was shut out six of its first 19 games, and four of those were 1-0 or 2-0.

But the offense woke up during Big Ten play. The team has averaged just over seven runs per game since March 23, while before that it had averaged 3.86. They are also 5-2 in one-run games since the conference began.

“I really think we knocked a lot down early in the season, in the first four or five weeks,” Bonnie Tholl said. “We learned how to take a hit, and then we started learning how to hit back and how to be resilient. There were times when we lingered a little longer than I had hoped, but we never lost hope.

“After making some defensive adjustments and offensive adjustments, we started to experience the rewards of all our hard work and preparation. I think the six inches between our ears made our confidence grow. That’s what happens. Your mental game grows; we learned how to win.”

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The Wolverines plan to come out swinging this weekend and deliver a knockout blow in the region.

“I think our (non-conference slate) really showed that we had some really good wins and some really tough losses, but because we were in big moments, I think that’s more than a win or a loss,” said CEO Lauren Derkowski, who threw all the games. 19 innings of the Big Ten tournament and was named tournament MVP. “That you have a big moment and it’s what you can do with it. Bonnie told us that we’re going to learn to live in these big moments, and we’re going to learn how to thrive in them and how to win. We rehearsed these moments mentally and physically and brought it into our game.”