Bonnie Tholl has proven to be the right coach for Michigan

Thirteen minutes after the Michigan softball team made its Big Ten Tournament Championship victory official, the entire team was still gathered at home plate for postgame interviews, commemorative jersey presentations and trophy presentations. But just outside the shelter, Bonnie Tholl was alone.

After all, it was a familiar place. Tholl had been on the bench for the Wolverines’ previous 10 tournament titles and even their NCAA Championship in 2005. But this one was different. Saturday marked her first championship at the helm of the storied Michigan program, her first as head coach.

So Tholl took a moment to herself amid the euphoria of her team’s celebration, taking a step back from training to be a spectator for once, beaming with a wide smile as she took it all in.

“In the initial reaction, you’re very excited because you’re a competitor and you want to win,” Tholl said Saturday. “But then when you step back and see them have their moment, that’s the best thing.”

Tholl may not have wanted to admit it, but in addition to pride in his players, that postgame smile might also have had a tinge of self-approval, a self-approval that would be well-deserved.

Last season, Tholl’s first as head coach, the Wolverines missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1994 and posted a 26-25 record that was the worst in program history. The disappointing year raised questions about Tholl’s viability as head coach. However, after this season, he has more than proven that he is the right person to lead this team.

Last year’s problems carried over into the early parts of this season, and after a 10-9 start, concerns understandably continued to grow. But suddenly, Tholll changed things. Almost inexplicably, just in time for the Big Ten game, his offense became a juggernaut and they began to excel in critical situations where they often failed a season ago. They won 27 of their last 32 games, including winning streaks of 10 and 14 games.

Tholl stressed the need to “trust the process” ad nauseam during early-season adversity, and just when the phrase was starting to lose its meaning, his process started getting results. However, that process changed along the way. Tholl often praises her players’ ability to adapt within games, but it was she herself who made the necessary adjustments throughout the season to get to this point.

“We were preparing in a certain way and had done certain drills since the fall and then we realized, ‘Oh, we have to go in a little different direction,’” Tholl said on April 30. .

When things aren’t going well, it’s hard to find the balance between changing too much and being too stubborn. In his lineup decisions throughout the season, Tholl was able to find that sweet spot.

He stuck with freshman outfielder Ella Stephenson all year, keeping her in the everyday lineup even when her batting average was a paltry .156 two months into the season, and it paid off: Stephenson hit .382 in conference games and was named to the All-Big Ten Second Team.

But when freshman right-hander and utility player Erin Hoehn was struggling at the designated player spot, Tholl made a change. She traded Hoehn for freshman utility player Ava Costales, who immediately proved Tholl right (she homered in the first game after the trade) and went on to have six home runs and two hits on the season.

Even in his rare pinch-hitter usage, Tholl has shown time and time again that he has the instincts to make game-winning adjustments. Sophomore utility player Madi Ramey had just four at-bats on the year, with all outs, before Tholl replaced her in extra innings against Iowa on April 13. And the risk paid off: out of nowhere, Ramey pulled off a victory. career. Similarly, sophomore infielder Avery Fantucci had just two hits since February before her pinch-hit grand slam in Thursday’s win.

Tholl also led them through victories on Friday and Saturday, holding his own. He kept his ace, junior right-handed pitcher Lauren Derkowski, in the circle for all 348 of Michigan’s pitches in the conference tournament. By relying on his best player in the biggest moments, Tholl helped the Wolverines win a championship and Derkowski win Most Outstanding Player.

In a season so rigidly divided into two parts, the second-half surge can only be attributed to a coaching masterclass. Saturday’s Big Ten Tournament Championship is ultimately further confirmation of this season in which Tholl has proven his worth as a head coach.

He has returned Michigan to the top of the conference, where his hall of fame predecessor Carol Hutchins held it for so long, and he didn’t need Hutchins’ players to do it either. Despite it being only Tholl’s second year, only five of the fifteen players who played for the Wolverines in the Big Ten Tournament knew ‘Hutch’ as ​​their head coach.

Not only has Tholl brought them another Big Ten Tournament Championship, but he has also created a team that can maintain this level of winning for years to come.

Michigan is already plagued with freshmen who have yet to reach their greatest potential. Two sophomores occupy the pivotal No. 2 and No. 3 spots in the batting order, and their freshman class, the first recruited entirely under Tholl’s reign, is already making significant contributions.

If Michigan’s sophomore class is early proof of Tholl’s ability to develop young talent, and if his instant-contributing freshmen say anything about his recruiting prowess, then the Wolverines aren’t going anywhere. in the short term.

And as Bonnie Tholl stood outside the dugout Saturday, enjoying her team’s celebration as the festivities continued, she had plenty of reasons to smile: not just pride in her team or even in herself for getting to this point this season, but because it is sustainable. and this probably won’t be her last championship. Tholl can smile because she has proven to be the right coach for Michigan, now and in the future.