Gophers end regular season with sweep

Sophomore pitcher Sara Groenewegen high-fives her teammates while returning to the dugout at the Jane Sage Cowles Stadium on Friday evening against Purdue.

Liam James Doyle

Sophomore pitcher Sara Groenewegen high-fives her teammates while returning to the dugout at the Jane Sage Cowles Stadium on Friday evening against Purdue.

Matt Greenstein

Minnesota’s senior class first arrived on campus near the beginning of head coach Jessica Allister’s rapid program turnaround.
 
Since its arrival, the class has helped the team improve each year — jumping from 31 regular-season victories as freshmen to 46 as seniors.
 
The seniors capped their last regular-season series with a sweep over Purdue, winning 1-0 Friday and 3-2 and 4-2 in a Saturday doubleheader. 
 
“The seniors mean so much to us, and they built this program from the ground up,” sophomore Sara Groenewegen said. “We wanted to win these for our seniors.”
 
The first game of the series was a pitchers’ duel and though it was senior weekend, Groenewegen stole the show.
 
Groenewegen faced the Boilermakers’ Lilly Fecho — the only pitcher to throw a shutout against the Gophers last season. 
 
“Fecho is a great pitcher; I have a lot of respect for her. She threw really well against us last year, so we were really prepared coming in,” senior Kaitlyn Richardson said. “Sometimes you hit it and it lands. She’s still young, and she’s still improving every year.” 
 
Fecho retired the first 10 batters she faced Friday before giving up a hit. But her strong pitching performance was overshadowed by a fifth inning RBI double from
Gophers junior Paige Palkovich.
 
Fecho and Groenewegen faced off again in Saturday’s game, needing extra innings to settle the score.
 
Groenewegen set a school record with 19 strikeouts in eight innings pitched.
 
“She left it all on the line,” Allister said. “It was a quick turnaround. We got done pretty late [Friday, and] we came back. It’s hot out here. There’s not much rest, but she just went for it and competed like crazy.”
 
With her 19 strikeouts, Groenewegen moved herself into second place in Gophers’ history with 332 strikeouts in a single season.
 
“I think just having confidence and knowing that if I go right at the batters, I know good things will happen,” Groenewegen said. “I’ve been saying, ‘If you throw strikes, good things will happen.’”
 
With Groenewegen pitching as well as she did, she didn’t need much run support. The Gophers’ ace gave up just two hits, one of which was a two-run home run.
 
She threw more than 140 pitches, and her team eventually solidified the 3-2 victory with a walk-off eighth-inning single into left field from senior Hannah Granger.
 
While Groenewegen and Fecho took the third game off, Minnesota’s strong pitching performance continued.
 
Junior Nikki Anderson set a career high with nine strikeouts in the game.
 
“She showed up ready to compete,” Allister said. “We struggled a little bit behind early on, but she was fiery. She was keeping us in the ball game, and she was the reason we were able to come back. She was tough, and she kept us in it.” 
 
Down by two going into the bottom of the sixth, Minnesota’s bats came alive, scoring four runs in the inning.
 
Now, the Gophers will turn their attention to the postseason where they’ll try to defend last year’s Big Ten tournament title before heading to the NCAA tournament.
 
“[The end of the regular season] doesn’t feel real right now,” Richardson said. “We have so much season left.”