Early-season tournaments a way of life for Minnesota

A stretch of 30 games before Big Ten play has helped the Gophers develop and uncover rising stars such as freshman pitcher Sara Moulton.

Jesse Mandell-McClinton

In college basketball, March Madness showcases the intensity, competitiveness, and emotion involved in tournament play. More games are played in a shorter period of time, and a teamâÄôs strengths and weaknesses are exposed against an assortment of opponents from around the country.

For the Gophers softball team, over half of its regular season games take place in this tournament atmosphere.

Minnesota plays its first conference game this Saturday against Indiana after finishing tournament play with an 18-12 record. Michigan leads the conference with 31 games played and a 29-2 record.

âÄúI think weâÄôre playing games that are doing a lot to prepare us,âÄù head coach Jessica Allister said. Though she said that comparing the effect of early season softball tournaments with tournaments in other sports is difficult from her perspective, Allister sees the travel and high volume of games as a way to help the team come together. This is just as important for her, as sheâÄôs in the middle of her first season ever as a head coach.

Since tournaments gather teams from around the country to compete, travel is a large part of the competitive structure. This year has been an unusual one for the Gophers, as they were not able to host the Metrodome Tournament, held annually since 2008 because of the stadium roofâÄôs collapse. The tournament typically allows them to spend at least one week that isnâÄôt congested with travel, tight schedules and unfamiliar cities.

This year, the GophersâÄô first game in Minnesota will take place on April 2 âÄî 33 games into the season and almost two months after their first regular season matchup. Since their first game in the Hotel Encanto Tournament in Las Cruces, N.M. on Feb. 12, the team has spent consecutive weekends in Riverside, Calif., Greensboro, N.C., Tucson, Ariz., Stillwater, Okla. and Columbia, Mo. âÄìâÄì not to mention a mid-week tournament in Springfield, Mo. last week.

âÄúI love the turnaround,âÄù senior first baseman Malisa Barnes said. Barnes, who is second in the conference with a .464 batting average, thinks that the tournament games give the team solid preparation for its conference schedule. âÄúIt does help a lot, being able to see so many pitchers throwing against you,âÄù she said.

Missouri and Oklahoma State, currently ranked No. 8 and No. 18, respectively, have both shut out Minnesota this season, though the Gophers got their revenge against the Cowgirls with a 2-0 win in the Oklahoma State-Mizuno Classic championship.

Playing against such solid competition can also expose talent that may have been folded into the lineup more cautiously if conference play began earlier. For the Gophers this year, that unexpected talent has been Sara Moulton, a freshman pitcher from Eagan, Minn. who has already racked up eight shutouts this season and has spent most of the season in the Big TenâÄôs top five for strikeouts. On Monday, she was named the Big TenâÄôs rookie of the week for the second consecutive time.

âÄúAll these tournaments are preparing us for the Big Ten tournament,âÄù Moulton said. She sees these tournaments helping the teamâÄôs postseason play, in addition to helping the Gophers prepare for their regular season conference schedule.

This trend isnâÄôt the same throughout college softball. While teams in every conference begin with early season tournaments, teams further south are able to start their conference schedules earlier thanks to the warmer climate. For example, the ACC and SEC, both located in the South, have already started conference play, with the SECâÄôs South Carolina already 10 games deep into its conference schedule. The Pac-10, Big 12 and Big 10, on the other hand, are all starting their conference play this week.

The biggest difference between conference and tournament play for teams lies in the knowledge of opponents they face. When Minnesota plays in a tournament, itâÄôs likely to play a team it hasnâÄôt seen in a long time, if at all. In addition, the Gophers donâÄôt usually play the same team twice in a weekend and donâÄôt have the intimate knowledge of players or team tendencies that they do for a Big Ten team. In conference play, the Gophers play in two-game series against familiar teams, play half their games their games at home, and must pay more attention to their opponent as they could meet again in the Big Ten tournament.

In a way, tournament play works as a nice balance between a competitive atmosphere and the slightly lower pressure of non-conference play. But the long wait before Big Ten play has some on the team antsy for the first Big Ten game Saturday.

âÄúI am super pumped for conference play this year,âÄù sophomore third baseman Alex Davis said. âÄúWe should beat everybody.âÄù