The expectation was set at the start of fall ball 10 months ago. Michigan would be aiming for a national title.
Never mind that the Wolverines hadn’t been to the College World Series in 35 years or hadn’t won a crown since 1962.
Never mind that a program facing similar weather challenges hadn’t made the title game since the 1993 Wichita State squad.
Never mind that this sport has been ruled by the big-budget, traditional powerhouses in the South.
Michigan’s coach instilled a belief. The players bought in. The administration provided funding and support.
And now the Wolverines are in position to break the mold — they’re playing SEC juggernaut Vanderbilt for a national championship.
“Coach (Erik) Bakich imparts on us that you don’t have (to) go south to be an Omaha program,” senior first baseman Jimmy Kerr said. “We’re going to build one right here in Michigan. Just the mindset that he kind of gives to the team is that we’re not just playing for Big Ten championships, we’re playing on a national level.”
They’ve proved this month that they belong. Starting with Monday’s first game of the best-of-three championship series, they get one more chance to cement their postseason run as one of the most impressive feats in recent history.
Michigan will face new-age titan Vanderbilt, which has earned 14 consecutive NCAA tournament trips, made eight super regionals in 10 years and won the national title in 2014. The Commodores, seeded No. 2 overall, are the clear favorites.
But what if the Wolverines were able to take down a member of the game’s elite?
It could prove to be an important moment.
The sport thrives in the South, where the weather is warm, the budgets are massive and the fans are rabid.
But up north?
The college game has been relatively dormant. Many of the top recruits don’t stick around. The ones who do join programs that spend the first third of the season on the road — and often don’t reveal their potential until the final few weeks.
Since the NCAA adopted its current postseason format in 1999, 168 teams have reached Omaha. All but six of those squads were either located on the West Coast or the South, or had ties to a major conference based mostly in warmer climates.
Stony Brook. Kent State. Indiana. Missouri State. Notre Dame. And now, Michigan.
Six out of 168.
But the past was never a deterrent to these Wolverines.
“That’s definitely one of the choices that I wanted to make when I decided (to play for Michigan) — to trust in the program and try to help bring Midwest baseball to where we all know it can be,” sophomore catcher Joe Donovan said. “Because so many good programs around the country really live and breathe with Midwest kids.”
Perhaps that mindset becomes contagious. Maybe Michigan’s run sparks a revival of college baseball in the Midwest.
The sport’s decision-makers spoke at the start of the CWS about resources and commitment. That’s what matters most in the pursuit of a title.
If a school invests in college baseball, it can win. The Wolverines are proof.
“The difference-maker is the administration and what they do with their facilities, their operating budget, their support — how they’re able to handle financial aid, allowing them to get the right coaching staff, giving (players) the right meals and nutrients,” said Craig Keilitz, executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association.
But not every school can allocate funds the way the SEC can.
Plus, northern schools will always have challenges — like conducting their preseason practices indoors, playing more road games, building a fan base, retaining player and coaching talent.
Maybe Michigan found the blueprint to manage those obstacles. Bakich hopes this is just the start.
“I think bigger than a lack of facilities, bigger than the weather, is a belief system,” Bakich said. “Not allowing cold weather to be an excuse. ... It’s just a mindset thing. Our players know it, and our recruits know it, and we don’t shy away from it. Yeah, it’s cold here, but it’s not going to keep us from getting better.”