Back in WCWS, Michigan celebrates 10-year anniversary of first NCAA title
OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. -- Ten years have passed since they watched Samantha Findlay's three-run homer sail over the left field fence at the ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, making Michigan the NCAA champions for the first time.
Jessica Merchant, the All-America shortstop and captain, is now an assistant coach at the University of Minnesota.
Jennie Ritter-Meinrod, the 38-game winner and All-America pitcher, is married and working for Louisville Slugger on their entire line of fastpitch softball equipment.
Findlay, the 2005 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, is married and the proud mother of Logan, who is named for the Hugh Jackman character in the "Wolverine" movies that also happen to be based on her husband's favorite comic strip. She's the assistant manager in human resources for a concrete company, Ozinga, and living in Chicago while closing in on a master's degree in secondary education at DePaul.
Carol Hutchins, the coach of that team, is back in Oklahoma City with her 11th Women's College World Series team in 31 seasons, preparing to play Alabama on Thursday in quest of that second national championship.
Mentioning those three players and the others from that 2005 team that finally won it all put a warm, reflective smile on the coach's face. Hutchins said the remarkable thing about that team was that it "believed from day one" that it was going all the way.
"Of all the teams I coached," she said, "that team convinced me. They kept saying, 'We're going to win the championship. We're going to win the championship.' When we were flying out to Fullerton (California), we were having a good season. And in the Fullerton trip, we are facing some of our best competition. I thought, 'This will be a great test for us.'
"And Jessie Merchant and Nicole Motycka are sitting by me on the plane, and they both say, 'We're going to win the tournament.' Who am I to tell them they're not? We beat everybody. And we got the No. 1 ranking -- which we'd never had. It was historical. We only lost four games all season and lost three games in the NCAA Tournament."
They finished 65-7 and won it all. Today, they wonder where the time went.
"It seems like it just happened yesterday," said Ritter-Meinrod. "It does not feel like 10 years have gone by. It was the most exciting moment for all of us.
"And when I was in town for the Big Ten Network, I told this team that they are the first team since our '05 team that really has a chance to win the World Series. They have the talent, and they just have to believe. We had tremendous group chemistry, and we fit so well together. This team does, too."
Merchant chuckled when the decade passing was mentioned.
"That just means I'm old," she said. "What I remember most is what a breakthrough it was for the program. It was not just for those 20 players; it was for the whole program. It was the icing on the cake -- a great experience that supplied some of the greatest days of my life.
"Hopefully, they can go all the way this year. Then we can get the 2005 and 2015 teams together for a reunion."
It was telling that all three of the players concluded commenting on their accomplishment by adding how hard they were pulling for this team to win the second championship.
"That championship is a part of you every day," said Findlay. "Somebody always seems to bring it up, and I remember it as some of the best times of my life.
"Hutch and her whole coaching staff have established something special. She would tell us that by becoming Wolverines, 'You are in it for a lifetime.' And you are. I hope they win it again this year."
Findlay departed after four seasons with the school records for homers (62) and runs batted in (219) that stood until current Wolverines junior second baseman Sierra Romero surpassed both totals earlier this month.
Their big bats are the two teams' most comparable components.
The essence of that 2005 team was its incredible self-confidence, and Findlay said that was the result of strong senior leadership spearheaded by Merchant, who used the disappointment of going 0-2 in the 2004 World Series to spur the team.
"Merchant inspired all of us," said Findlay. "She got us all together that year and said, 'I'm going out this year with a win (in the Series).' We all bought into it."
Ritter-Meinrod added, "We all had a chip on our shoulder from day one. We thought we had enough talent to make it happen, and we wanted another opportunity to show that."
The Wolverines beat DePaul, Texas and Tennessee to reach the championship series against two-time defending champion UCLA but were on the brink of getting swept. They were beaten, 5-0, and then fell behind, 2-0, in the second game. However, catcher Becky Marx tied it with a two-run homer, and the Wolverines won, 5-2.
"We knew we'd never lost two games in a row all season," said Hutchins. "We're behind, 2-0, and we'd hit so well all year, and I thought, 'Are we done?' And then Becky Marx hit it out and lit us up."
Merchant said: "Becky's homer was huge! It helped us believe."
They forced a winner-take-all game with the Bruins that was tied headed into the top of the 10th inning, when Findlay hit a three-run homer to make it 4-1. Ritter still had to get three outs in the bottom half of the inning, but that homer was the moment they'll remember forever.
"I struck out right before she hit it out," said Merchant. "I saw it go out, and thought, 'Oh, my gosh, she did it!' And I knew there was no way we were going to give up the lead after that. It was just an unbelievable swing. It's what Sam did all year. She had a great at-bat and just pounded the ball."
Findlay provided the rest of the story:
"Merchant came back after striking out, and smashed me on the helmet really hard. She said, 'Pick me up, Sam!' I wanted to do it for her and my team; it wasn't about me."
Findlay faced Bruins All-America pitcher Anjelica Selden with two out and two on.
"I saw a good inside pitch and took my best swing," said Findlay. "I knew right away that I had it, and it went out to leftfield. I looked out to centerfield and saw my dad with both of his arms raised, and then I saw Hutch. And then I saw the expression on all the faces of my teammates. It's a look you get after you do something great."
Ritter froze for a few seconds.
"I was on the bench," said Ritter-Meinrod, "trying to stay cool. I saw it in the air, and I heard the crowd and knew it was gone. I was the last one out of the dugout, I was just shocked. And it was my best moment in college softball."
Hutchins realized a moment of great fulfillment.
"I was in the third-base coaching box," said Hutchins. "I just remember thinking, 'Get over the fence. Get over the fence.' I thought it was out, but I didn't want to get my hopes up. I'm watching, and it's going and going, and it goes over the fence. We're going to win the national championship, and the game's not over, and I've got to keep my kids grounded because they are going crazy.
"But Ritter was just a rock. She wasn't throwing with a lot of gas, but she just was not going to be beat."
Michigan became the first team east of the Mississippi River to win the championship.
"We'd already had seven appearances in the World Series," said Hutchins, "but we were 2-14 at the time, and that was all they talked about, how we'd never done anything at the Series. But I can name you a zillion coaches who wished they'd had 16 games in the World Series.
"But if you never win it, they don't look at you as accomplished. It's hard to get there, and it's hard to win. You keep going up the mountain, and the mountain just gets steeper. So, we had a little chip on our shoulder. I certainly did. We had a really good program, and I was really sick of nobody recognizing it. But I believed in my kids.
"We won the first game, and they said, 'You have the monkey off your back.' But I said, 'No! I don't care about the past. I want to win now. We came here to win this. We don't care what other teams did.' We were just out to make our own mark. But the media looked at the past, and they just constantly irritated me. And that team, Team 28, learned that they just have to do what they have to do."
Ritter had a school-record 38 wins and was the Big Ten's Suzy Favor Female Athlete of the Year.
Findlay's Series-clinching homer gave her 21 and tied her with Merchant for a school-record total, and Findlay was the WCWS Most Outstanding Player after batting .409 with eight RBI.
Merchant joined them both on the WCWS all-tournament team along with Wolverines rightfielder Stephanie Bercaw.
"We believed that if we could not do it," said Merchant, "somebody else would do it. We had each other, and we loved Michigan. It's a powerful thing. Hopefully, that's what this group's doing this year."