Gophers ready for a test

Minnesota will take on Big Ten leader Michigan in a crucial midseason series.

Minnesotas Sara Moulton pitches during a doubleheader against Wisconsin on April 7, 2013, at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium.

Image by Daily File Photo, Stephen Offerman

Minnesota’s Sara Moulton pitches during a doubleheader against Wisconsin on April 7, 2013, at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium.

by Jared Christensen

In the midst of the best regular season in program history, No. 13 Minnesota will face a huge test this weekend when it travels to Ann Arbor, Mich., for a three-game set with the third-ranked Wolverines.

Michigan sits atop the Big Ten with a 12-0 conference record and hasn’t lost a game since March 7.

Still, if there’s one team in the conference capable of stopping that run, it’s Minnesota.

The Gophers have used stellar pitching all season to crawl their way up in the national rankings.

That pitching staff, which earlier this month went six consecutive games without allowing an earned run, will face Michigan’s stacked lineup over the weekend. The Wolverines feature five batters with averages of .400 or higher. Among them is sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero, whose .515 average is the highest in the nation.

Minnesota sophomore catcher Taylor LeMay said she’s excited to see her team’s pitching staff take on Michigan.

“We have great strikeout pitchers,” she said. “And they have a couple great players we all want to strike out.”

Gophers freshman pitcher Sara Groenewegen said she won’t be intimidated facing a top-five team on the road.

“I don’t care about the rankings,” she said. “I think all that matters to me is that there’s a field to play on.”

She’ll have a field to play on — weather permitting — and will share it with a number of stars from both squads.

Two players from each squad are finalists for the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year award.

Gophers junior infielder Kaitlyn Richardson — whose .451 batting average is second in the Big Ten, behind only Romero of Michigan — and senior pitcher Sara Moulton occupy that list for Minnesota.

Romero and senior pitcher Haylie Wagner, whose 0.95 ERA is the best in the Big Ten, are the two representatives from the Wolverines.

Minnesota utility player Hannah Granger said the key to this series will be respecting Michigan as an opponent but remembering that her squad is also elite.

“Michigan has a great team, and they’ve always had a great team,” she said. “We just have to be aggressive and remember that we are great, too — and capable of beating anybody in the country.”

A huge piece of that potential to win comes from the dominant pitching staff, Gophers head coach Jessica Allister said.

“They really give us the chance to beat anybody in the country any day of the week,” she said.

This weekend will play a pivotal role in the way the rest of the season plays out, as both programs are fighting for a conference title.

“A Big Ten championship,” junior Tyler Walker said. “That’s been our goal all year. We’re excited for this series, and we’re ready to take it to them.”