Gophers hope to defend Big Ten tourney banner

Matt Greenstein

With runners on first and third, Sam Macken singled into right field, driving in the game-winning run against Michigan last season and solidifying the Gophers’ first Big Ten title since 1999.
 
Minnesota will begin its journey to repeat that championship this weekend.
 
Michigan holds the top seed again in this year’s conference tournament, and the Gophers have a bye for their third consecutive year, seeded second. 
 
But even with a bye, Minnesota’s dominance in the Big Ten tournament last year was anything but commonplace.
 
“We’ve been competing for the Big Ten title for 23 games. Our mindset has been a championship mentality,” senior Kaitlyn Richardson said. 
 
The Gophers reached 46 victories in the season — the most since 1999 — with 20 coming against Big Ten opponents. The conference victory number tied the record set in 1991.
 
“We’re finding different ways to win,” head coach Jessica Allister said. “We’re coming from behind, and we’re coming back. We’re holding leads. We’re doing a lot of things well. I think we just need to take confidence in the level of softball we’re playing right now.”
 
Finding a way to win is a lot easier with sophomore Sara Groenewegen in the circle. Minnesota’s ace received recognition this year on the conference and national levels. On Wednesday, Groenewegen was named the Big Ten Player of the Year, the first time a Minnesota player has won the award since 1991. 
 
“Just knowing that I can play at [a high] level and trusting my teammates behind me so I’m able to pitch all my pitches [is going to be key] so I can keep batters off balance,” Groenewegen said.
 
Richardson, another player who was on the championship team last year, received the Most Outstanding Player award for the tournament with a .857 batting average and a 2.000 slugging percentage.
 
“I can’t expect to have the same performance or do what I did last year,” Richardson said. “All I can expect is to produce for my team, have good at-bats and hope
that my team is behind me. If I don’t have that kind of tournament, I know that there’s 21 other girls that are going to pick me up.”
 
Although Minnesota has players with ample tournament experience on the roster, the Gophers’ freshmen will be in a new environment.
 
“[The message is] just trusting what we have and what we’ve done all season. We’re prepared and we’re ready for it,” Groenewegen said.
 
Whether its players are experienced or inexperienced, Minnesota has solidified itself as one of the best teams in the conference.
 
Despite that, the Gophers know the importance of playing well each game in a single-elimination format.
 
“Anything can happen, and we proved that last year in two ways,” Richardson said. “One, us winning the tournament, and two, we had some really close games that we pulled out. It’s anybody’s game, and that’s the beauty of a tournament. Survive and advance.”