STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Michigan was a plane flight and an abbreviated night's sleep away from the start of final exams the following morning, but the student-athletes who comprise the softball team struggled to answer a one-question pop quiz between games of a doubleheader at Penn State.
The nation's top-ranked team had just defeated the Nittany Lions 5-4 in the opening game of a midweek series, but since there is academic ground between a passing grade and graduating summa cum laude, there is plenty of athletic ground between winning and excelling. So as they waited for the nightcap, coach Carol Hutchins asked her players what Michigan softball is known for.
One suggested it was known for Hutchins, not a bad hypothesis. After all, like a pop icon or a Brazilian soccer star, "Hutch" needs but one name to garner instant recognition, not to mention admiration, across the softball map. Arizona's Mike Candrea, Fresno State's Margie Wright and perhaps one or two others are right there with her, but good luck arguing that any coach is more identifiable with a program than Hutchins is in her 27th season in Ann Arbor.
But no, she was not the answer to her own question.
Another player suggested "winning" as the program's raison d'etre. Again, a reasonable guess, the unfortunate Charlie Sheen voiceover in your head notwithstanding. Michigan softball is easy to define by the quantity and consistency of its victories. It was the first school to win a national title from either east of the Mississippi River or north of a geographic point at which snow blowers become prudent financial investments. Michigan has won better than 70 percent of the games it has ever played.
Yet that, too, was not the answer the coach sought.
"Having fun," Hutchins said she told her players when they had exhausted their guesses. "We are known for having fun; we always have fun when we play. People say that about us all the time. I said, 'I don't want to be a champion if it means not having fun. Let's just have fun and go back to that.'"
Recapturing that could prove to be quite a test.
For a few innings in the second game, they appeared to do just that. But whether it was the impending exams back in Ann Arbor, a chilly night in the wilds of Pennsylvania or something else entirely, the good vibes slipped away almost as quickly as they had arrived. By the time the second game was over, Michigan had another 5-4 win (with some help from a questionable call that erased a potential Penn State runner just before a two-run home run cut the deficit to the final margin) and a doubleheader sweep. But the mood as the team headed for the locker room and a quick departure for finals was, it's fair to say, less than celebratory.
"The season evolves, and you always have rough patches," Hutchins said after the Penn State wins. "I can say I'm hoping this is our rough patch, and we're getting away with wins because that's been the last four games. We've won -- I don't know how. Not with our best pitching and not really with our best hitting or defense. It is a little rough patch."
Three days later, Michigan dropped a 4-2 decision at home to Iowa, just its fourth home loss in the past three seasons. And overshadowing even that, it spent the entire weekend without All-American pitcher Jordan Taylor, out for an undetermined amount of time with an undisclosed injury sustained after the Penn State game. Without Taylor, Michigan is without the one thing that most sets it apart from the rest of the Big Ten and puts it in the company of other championship contenders.
Then again, the Wolverines are no strangers to an identity crisis. Of the eight position players who start on a regular basis, only two -- center fielder Bree Evans and first baseman Dorian Shaw -- play the same position they primarily started a season ago. Evans has freshmen Lyndsay Doyle and Nicole Sappingfield on either side of her in the outfield. The middle infield of sophomores Amy Knapp and Ashley Lane entered the season with four career hits. And without Taylor, sophomore pitcher Stephanie Speierman is suddenly the sage old hand in a battery with freshman catcher Caitlin Blanchard.
Even now, with Lane and Sappingfield emerging as all-conference-caliber hitters, it's a group that will be greeted by diminished expectations for as long as Taylor is out. Although that part, at least, may feel familiar for a team that didn't know what to make of itself last fall after losing so many key seniors.
"The upperclassmen, I think, didn't really think we were that good," Hutchins said. "You know, we didn't look that good in the fall. And the underclassmen, they don't know what to expect anyway. So with no expectations, we just went out and played and had a lot of fun early."
In that respect, it's a team that followed Amanda Chidester's lead. Like Evans and Shaw, Chidester is a returning starter, but after playing primarily catcher, outfield and designated hitter as a freshman and second base as a sophomore, she was called on to replace All-American Maggie Viefhaus at third base this season. All Chidester has done is hit .399 with a 1.156 OPS, 10 home runs and 52 RBIs, including five hits and three RBIs in the wins against Penn State.
"She's been the heart and soul of this team since the day she walked on the field, she really has been," Hutchins said. "Probably the hardest thing for her has been she's never been able to play a position more than one year in a row, so she's really never gotten to develop at it. But it's her enthusiasm and exuberance that really makes it. She comes and goes with that. The older she's gotten, the more the burden of expectations she's placed on her shoulders, I think, has probably been her biggest enemy.
"When I can remind her to play that game and have fun, she's her best."
If Hutchins is to be believed, Chidester isn't alone. The Wolverines played a little like a team with the weight of the world on its shoulders in recent days. And while there's no getting around the fact that winning a conference title or NCAA tournament games will be a lot more difficult if one of the nation's best pitchers is on the shelf, it seems this team has the most fun when people, including perhaps even those in uniform, aren't quite sure what to expect out of it.
• In one of two top-10 rivalries that played out over the weekend, Arizona State swept three games from Arizona in Tucson for the first time in program history (the Sun Devils entered the series with just one win in Tucson in the previous 18 seasons). With Arizona ace Kenzie Fowler sidelined all weekend by a concussion, the Wildcats turned to three primarily position players in the circle during Sunday's finale, using freshman pitcher Shelby Babcock only as the final reliever after she threw 13 innings and more than 270 pitches in the first two games. For the Sun Devils, Annie Lockwood and Katelyn Boyd each hit two home runs over the weekend.
• Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the series between SEC rivals Alabama and Florida in Gainesville is that the Gators came within three outs of falling entirely out of the SEC race. Instead, Florida finds itself two games behind Tennessee in the SEC East and is surging forward with the momentum of two of the most dramatic wins any team has earned this season. And Alabama finds itself facing flashbacks to a string of late-inning leads that slipped away.
• The history of Florida-Alabama frantic finishes aside, this wasn't the first time Florida pulled off a great escape this season against a top contender. In a game against Texas on a neutral field in California, the Gators fell behind three times, including the seventh and eighth innings, only to rally each time en route to a 6-5 win. Florida coach Tim Walton has run his program with an increasingly isolationist aloofness in recent seasons, but as teams across the country struggle to find reliable second options in the circle, it was difficult to watch Hannah Rogers throw nine innings of three-hit ball on Sunday and draw any conclusion other than that the freshman has turned a corner as a viable big-game option alongside whatever senior Stephanie Brombacher can bring after battling injuries earlier this season.
• In the only weekend series between two teams ranked in the RPI top 40 that didn't take place in the Big 12, Pac-10 or SEC, Tulsa took two of three games at home against UAB to claim first place in Conference USA (Tulsa, UAB and Houston all have five conference losses, but Tulsa has three more wins than anyone). Freshman Aimee Creger continued to shine, earning both wins and allowing just four hits against 16 strikeouts in 14 innings in the circle.
• The Sun Belt race isn't exactly wide open, but the rearview mirror is a little more crowded after second-place Florida Atlantic swept three games from conference leader and previously prohibitive favorite Louisiana-Lafayette. Florida Atlantic's Rose Gressley twice got the best of Lafayette ace Ashley Brignac, including a 1-0, 10-inning opener in which Gressley allowed just one hit. Junior Heather Barnes had five hits for the Owls in the series, but her biggest hit came with a midweek walk-off home run against Florida International.
• Make it 10 starts in a row without allowing more than two runs for Cal ace Jolene Henderson. The sophomore started all three games against Stanford in a series with implications beyond bragging rights and allowed just one earned run in 21 innings (even if the two unearned runs the Cardinal scored in the middle game were enough to avert a sweep with a 2-1 win). In 218.2 innings this season, Henderson has allowed just 49 walks and 17 extra-base hits, compared to 66 walks and 30 extra-base hits in 192.2 innings as a freshman. So while Cal is scoring exactly the same amount behind its pitchers as it did last season (five per game), those runs aren't spread as thin. All too familiar with SEC country after exiting the NCAA tournament in regional play in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 2007 -- and super regional play in Gainesville, Fla. (twice) and Athens, Ga., the past three seasons -- the Bears are tied for third in the Pac-10 and are in the conversation to earn a chance to host any potential super regional.
• After scoring 98 runs in its first 27 games, DePaul has put up 107 more in its past 12 games, including 24 runs in a pair of weekend wins at Rutgers. That effort in Piscataway, before rain washed out the final game, represented the program's best two-game scoring output since early in the 2009 season. Currently in a tie for first with South Florida atop the Big East, DePaul has the schedule in its favor as it moves toward a conference title and top seed in the conference tournament -- no small prize for a team that entered the weekend trailing Notre Dame, Louisville and Syracuse among Big East teams in the RPI. All three remaining conference series are at home for the Blue Demons, including two against conference afterthoughts Connecticut and Seton Hall before South Florida visits to close the regular season.
• College softball is a more interesting place when the tradition-rich Big West is frisky, and it doesn't get much friskier than four teams within a game of first place who will square off in a pair of series next weekend. Last season marked the first time the venerable conference didn't send multiple representatives to the NCAA tournament, and ensuring that doesn't repeat itself is one of the more intriguing subplots of a four-way race between Cal State Fullerton, Pacific, Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara. Pacific moved into a tie for first with Fullerton by virtue of a three-game sweep against UC Riverside, with the co-leaders set to meet at Fullerton this weekend. Long Beach State, with the strongest NCAA tournament at-large profile of the four teams, hosts UCSB for three games this weekend after both teams took two of three from Cal Poly and Cal State Northridge, respectively.
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.