March 31, 2014
By Chris Graham, MGoBlue.com
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Writing in the sand. It is something you would normally see done at the beach, maybe on a tropical island far, far away. However, thousands of miles from the tropics, members of the University of Michigan softball team also leave their mark in the sand before every game at the Wilpon Complex, home of Alumni Field.
The 20 members of the Michigan softball team were really looking forward to getting their hands dirty at home. The Wolverines played their first 25 games -- nearly half of the schedule -- away from home. With only 15 home games on the schedule, time at Alumni Field is cherished.
Writing in the sand is all about bringing good luck to the home team. The players scribble jersey numbers, pictures and personal messages with their index fingers, in a throwback to kindergarten finger painting. This is one of the team's superstitions, and has seemed to work thus far, guiding them to an outstanding 25-6, 6-0 Big Ten record. That includes a perfect 3-0 record so far at home.
The whole team shares in the writing superstition, but there are other personal acts that help keep luck on the home team's side. In particular, senior Lyndsay Doyle describes her superstition when playing in Ann Arbor: "Katie Luetkens always has to tie a bow in my hair, and I always put my left sock and my left cleat on first."
Playing at home brings some advantages for the Wolverines. They get to enjoy the creature comforts of the new Donald R. Shepherd Softball Center, which they moved into back in January. The playing surface in the outfield is true now, and will not suffer due to Michigan's winters, thanks to the new AstroTurf surface laid out in the fall.
"Alumni Field is by far the best field in the nation," says senior Taylor Hasselbach.
The team could not wait to play their first home game of the year -- and it showed, with a weekend sweep of Indiana (March 21-22). And the veterans were excited for the freshmen to experience their first home game.
"I think they're going to be a bit nervous and excited," says Hasselbach. "I can't wait for them to experience the crowd that comes because it's a big crowd that comes, more than we've ever seen on the road. So I'm excited for them to experience that."
Until late March, the Wolverines only knew life on the road, and all the challenges that came along with it.
"Definitely leaving early in the week (is difficult)," says Doyle. "The travel day that it takes (to get somewhere) means missing class on Fridays, that's always difficult so we always have to stay on top of things."
Senior co-captain Katie Luetkens adds, "You're in a different routine than you've been in all year. You're at the airport for a bunch of hours, then you land somewhere and don't have much time until you play. There's all this extra stuff added to the pressures and stresses of playing that's outside the lines."
Away from the field, the road is good for bringing the team closer together.
"When we're on the road it's 24/7 with your team," says Hasselbach. "You're staying in a hotel with a teammate, you ride to the games in a bus with all of your teammates, and you create those fun moments and memories."
Now those fun moments and memories include playing at Alumni Field in 2014. Many players talked about the special atmosphere at home and the intensity and passion that they see from the fans.
"The fans, just having them here and cheering you on," says Luetkens, about what makes Alumni Field special for her. "They're always so into the game no matter what's happening. They're always getting on the umps for a bad call or cheering us on when things are going well."
While playing at home is an advantage, there are also some challenges that coincide with being a student-athlete. Luetkens describes the difficulties of playing at home: "I actually think that it's a little more difficult to play at home because you have to go to class and you're a little bit more tired. On the road you get to sleep in, you have a casual lunch and then you go to the game. When you're at home you have to get up, you have to go to class and then you have to come to the game. Everything is a little bit more rushed."
But all of that melts away when the Wolverines line up on the first base line, kneel down and start writing in the sand. They might as well be scribbling "Home, sweet home."
"The fans cheer loudly, the band is playing -- it's a great support system that we have," says Hasselbach.
The Wolverines started off perfectly at home, completing a sweep against conference foe Indiana. The team dominated all three games, outscoring Indiana by a combined 29-4 at Alumni Field (March 21-22). The Wolverines won each game by at least eight runs. In the home opener, the Maize and Blue enjoyed spectacular performances from Lyndsay Doyle (3-for-3, two runs) and Haylie Wagner (6.0 IP, 0 ER while batting 2-for-2, HR), among others. The Wolverines play at home this weekend against Ohio State (April 4-6). Tickets are available at MGoBlue.com/tickets.