By Michael Kasiborski
The course of University of Michigan athletics changed forever on a summer day in 1973. But it had nothing to do with Bo or Canham, Campy or Moby.
This small shift in history would not bear fruit for a dozen years, and its full impact would not be realized until perhaps a generation later. But in the 40 years since that day Michigan Athletics is profoundly different and it can be summed up in one name: Hutch.
On that summer day in 1973, a teenaged Carol Hutchins was asked to play for the Lansing Lassies, an organized softball team that served as the farm team for the Lansing Laurels. It may not seem terribly significant except for a few factors: that day led Hutch to organized softball, it would ignite her passion for coaching and led to her first -- and perhaps most profound -- role model in coaching.
Hutchins, who is not prone to hyperbole, said she thought she "had died and gone to heaven" when that invitation came her way. For a kid who grew up loving sports, and idolizing the Laurels, this was a dream (she includes this when talking about a brush with the Laurels as a young player: "We got to go to the youth clinic and meet the players. We were star struck, they were our Detroit Tigers"). Opportunities for girls to play organized sports in the early 1970s were about as plentiful as the passing plays in Schembechler's offense back then.
You see, the Laurels were it. And the Lassies were one stop away from being a Laurel.
"It was a turning point in my life, really," Hutchins admits. "I got into organized sports."
It was a summer unlike any other for Hutchins. She had a uniform -- she got to practice (imagine the excitement over simply having a structured practice!) and she traveled the state with her teammates playing in tournaments.
But the next summer, when Laurels head coach -- and the matriarch of softball in the Great Lakes State -- Purves invited Hutch to play for her squad, Hutch balked. See, Hutch liked playing and she figured to do a lot of sitting behind the Laurels' All-American shortstop Jamie Smith.
"(Kay) convinced me to that I needed to do it," she says. Hutchins reluctantly agreed and would debut with the Laurels as a 16-year-old -- the youngest member of the team. It was also the first leap of faith she made for a coach who would become an inspiration, a mentor and a lifelong sounding board.
The girl who would become the Michigan icon had no idea that her time with the Laurels would spawn a Hall of Fame coaching career, nor that she would share the diamond with two other future Division I coaches.
And how about this: there are 58 members of the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Fame. One is Hutchins, and another is Laurels teammate Mary Nutter.
Now consider that 17 women in all played for the Laurels between 1974-75. The batting average for softball immortality is pretty good for former Laurels.
The Laurels came into existence in the early 1960s and quickly fell under the purview of Purves. For years she was the coach, the de facto general manager and, oh yeah, she was the catcher, too. She was still catching into her 40s when Hutchins joined the team. The Laurels drew thousands of fans to watch their games, including a contingent from the Hutchins' household and their friends. The squad was considered semi-professional because although the players were not paid, their equipment and travel expenses were taken care of by a series of generous sponsors (first Bud Kouts Chevrolet and then Lenz Bike Shop).
Softball took the Laurels and the women who made up the roster across the state and across the country. Hutchins was the youngest player on the Laurels, and most of her teammates were five, ten or even 15 years older than her. It was a Lansing-centric roster, with a few players sprinkled in from elsewhere in the state. Most grew up playing baseball with the boys, but this was their team.
"We'd get on a bus and tour the country. We went on 10-day bus tours. We played in Indianapolis. We went out to Connecticut and played out east against the Raybestos Brakettes (link). It was like minor league ball. I had never gone away from home.
"It was just awesome -- you're a kid and you're playing ball."
Hutchins will be forever captured in those moments as a kid with the Lansing Laurels. The teams from the 1974-75 seasons were recently inducted into the Greater Lansing Area Sports Hall of Fame.
"Why does anybody get into a hall of fame?" asks GLAS Hall of Fame executive director Bob Every. "The Laurels did things nobody else has done. They were extraordinary.
Lansing Laurels 1974
Carol Hutchins -- back row, fourth from right
Kay Purves - front row, second from right
"When you take a long look at the history of the Laurels, and then you look at our hall of fame, it boils down to the impact they had on the sport they played, the impact they had on the community, and you take all of these factors, and you say the Laurels were one of the most influential teams of their time."
During the 1974-75 seasons the Laurels compiled a 112-51 record in the Amateur Softball Association Majors fastpitch division and finished eighth and fifth at Nationals, respectively.
"In 1974 we went to Orlando," recounts Hutchins. "Our first game (at Nationals) was against the Sun City Saints and we played 21 innings, I got to play the last seven innings because our shortstop (Jamie Smith) went into pitch. And it was huge."
The Laurels lost in extra innings, but it was an eye-opening experience for Hutchins. She was surrounded by the best players in her sport playing for the team of her dreams.
"All summer long my friends back home wondered what I was doing -- I couldn't go to concerts anymore or go to the lake, I played ball. And I loved it.
"When we hosted the Raybestos Brakettes, we had 3,000 people there (at Ranney Park). The newspaper would write articles about us, and people in town knew us. It was a big deal to be a Laurel. It was cutting edge, really."
"They had such a thirst for the game," says Every, who watched the Laurels play during their heyday. "And then many of them became mentors for the game all across the country. They were an amazing group of girls."
The mentor of all those mentors was Purves. So integral was she to the game, that the Michigan Legislature proclaimed her the state's "First Lady of Softball" on May 9, 1975. She made it into the Amateur Softball Association of America Hall of Fame in 1991 after a long career of coaching and playing for the Laurels.
"Kay was a straight shooter, driven. She always wanted more," says Hutchins. "She was tough. She had your attention and had your respect, and you knew she wanted the best for that team no matter what we were doing."
Sounds like a certain coach who has worn the Maize and Blue for the past 29 seasons.
So it should come as no surprise when Hutch says this:
"I look at Kay as the reason I'm sitting where I am today. I wanted to be like Kay, the person who commands respect and runs the show and expects greatness."
Purves provided some structure and incentive for a young Hutchins to stay on the straight and narrow. Hutchins says some of her friends were heading in an "undesirable direction" during their high school days. Any time she got into hot water, her mom would ask, "What would Purves think?"
"I never wanted to disappoint Kay. I credit that time in my life for putting me on a good path."
Remember, this was still the infancy of organized women's sports. And to have a strong female role model in the sporting world was rare, indeed.
"Kay's impact on everybody was amazing. She ran the Laurels like a professional club -- as good as (former Detroit Tigers manager) Jim Leyland," says Hutchins. "We were organized; we were structured, especially during practices. We polished our shoes before every game, we tucked our shirts in and we represented the Laurels really well."
Hutchins refined her coaching approach under Schembechler's guidance, and she says she saw a lot of the same qualities in Michigan football's iconic coach with her coach of the Laurels.
"She taught us to respect the game," said Hutchins.
Every points to the coaching tree Purves planted as further proof of her impact. "Kay Purves molded this team together," said Every. "She taught these girls how to play the game and how to respect the game. And that's how you get spinoffs like Carol Hutchins and Kathy Strahan and Gloria Becksford and Mary Nutter."
Lansing Laurels 1975
Carol Hutchins -- back row, far right
Kay Purves - front row, far right.
Michigan fans are familiar with Hutchins' accomplishments: just the third NCAA coach to surpass 1,300 career wins, a conference-record 16 Big Ten championships and the first team east of the Mississippi to win the NCAA championship.
Strahan played second base for the Laurels and Hutchins calls her a "softball prodigy" from an early age. She recently retired as the head coach of Sacramento State after 21 years there. She also coached at San Jose State (1986-92) and Cal State Dominguez Hills (1984-85) compiling more than 800 career wins along the way and earning Coach of the Year honors in three different conferences.
Becksford coached at Michigan State from 1981-93 and was the 1986 Big Ten Coach of the Year. She won 259 games during her tenure as the Spartans' head coach. She was inducted in the MSU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1992.
Hutchins, Strahan and Becksford, along with Laurels teammate Gayle Barrons, all played for Michigan State in 1976 when the squad won the AIAW National Championship.
"Three of our four infielders on State were Laurels," recalls Hutchins. "We were all local and we were all Spartans fans." Not a bad feeder program.
And then you have Nutter, who went to Michigan State before there was a softball team (1970). She coached at Pittsburg State (Kan.) for eight years following her days with the Laurels and won more than 200 games. She founded the National Sports Clinics in 1987 to spread the gospel of coaching softball. The NSC conducts sessions across the country to teach coaches the tricks of the trade. She was enshrined into the NFCA Hall of Fame in 1997 for her contributions to the sport of softball.
Those four players from the 1974-75 teams went on to have long careers around softball. Add in Purves (who in her mid-40s was an All-American catcher for those two teams) and Penny Knupp, who had a long umpiring career, and you've got six of 17 players dedicating their lives to the sport.
"How many other teams made the impact they did on softball?" Every asks. "This was just a different collection of kids."
Every says the Laurels are the first city team to earn a spot in the Greater Lansing Area Sports Hall of Fame, an institution usually reserved for individuals or teams who excelled in the high school, collegiate or professional realms.
"There was no way we could keep them out," he says. "If the hall of fame is about recognizing people who have contributed the most to the sports heritage of your area, how could you not have these girls in?"
When the Laurels were inducted on July 25, they gathered without their coach. Purves died on July 14 at the age of 83.
The softball world lost a titan, but her impact is clear, especially on Michigan's campus.
"Kay Purves was the reason I became a coach," says Hutchins. "She was like the general."
Hutch continued to play for the Laurels during her summers away from Michigan State, but those squads never equaled the success of the 1974 and 1975 editions. When she was finally done with college, she planned to head to Buffalo and play with a professional team, eschewing another summer with the Laurels.
"I told Kay about it and she was not happy. But I wanted to try it -- school was done and I didn't have a job. About a week before I was supposed to leave, the team (in Buffalo) folded. Then Kay wouldn't take me back."
Everything would turn out alright for Hutchins, even if she never again donned the green and white of the Laurels. She enrolled in graduate school at Indiana University and began coaching under the legendary Gayle Blevins. Strahan, Nutter, Becksford and the others would eventually scatter to pursue their passions. Purves continued to coach the Laurels until 1987, her passion since the early days of the club.
They would make the pilgrimage back to Lansing from across the country for Purves' funeral on July 22 and the induction ceremony July 25. Hutchins joined 14 of her Laurels teammates for the induction. Only Purves and Nutter (who passed away in 2012) were not with them. The Michigan coach had the honor of speaking on behalf of the group and she toasted the teams' successes and Purves' influence on them.
The reunion brought on stories from yesteryear and served as a reminder of how far they have come since those days at Ranney Park.
"You talk about confidence -- you can get Carol Hutchins up on any stage in the world and she will carry herself as well as anybody," says Every. "She has that confidence, and that's what Kay Purves did, she gave these girls confidence.
You can see those girls, hanging now for posterity in the Greater Lansing Area Sports Hall of Fame. But their real legacy is not a static photo on the wall. No, their legacy stretches across the country, floating through the softball diamonds inhabited by thousands of girls learning to play the game.
And somewhere, in some town, a coach is picking a team. Nothing in the world will ever be the same. It certainly changed for the University of Michigan way back in 1973.
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