Wildcats give Minn. the Sunday blues

Mark Heise

Opening weekend for Big Ten softball didn’t look too promising, with poor weather forecasts appearing to follow Minnesota everywhere.

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North Dakota State
what: Softball
when: 4 p.m., Wednesday
where: Minneapolis

But surprises were in store as the Gophers played all four scheduled games, opening up conference play winning two-of-four.

Minnesota (19-10 overall, 2-2 Big Ten) swept Michigan State on the road with 2-0 and 6-5 wins Friday and Saturday, but got swept at Northwestern. After losing a close game to the No.16-ranked Wildcats 5-2 on the front end of a doubleheader, the Gophers dropped an 8-2 lead in the second game to finish the weekend with a 17-8 loss.

Coach Lisa Bernstein said despite losing a pair of leads, she was happy overall with the effort put in this weekend.

“Northwestern is a good ball club and I think our kids got after it every single pitch, whether on offense or defense,” Bernstein said. “There isn’t one thing I can fault with this team, they didn’t give up.”

Freshman first baseman Malisa Barnes and senior outfielder Casey Wheeler blasted solo home runs in back-to-back innings Friday, but it was junior pitcher Briana Hassett who stole the show.

Hassett scattered four hits during seven innings to produce her seventh shutout of the season, handing the Gophers a 2-0 win against Michigan State to start the season.

“The leadoff and three hitters are the core of Michigan State’s team, and Briana shut them down,” senior third baseman Colleen Conway said. “That was probably the biggest part of our success.”

Hassett picked up her second win in as many days Saturday, as junior pitcher Katie Dalen and Hassett split time pitching. Minnesota required more offense to stay in the game this time, but the lineup came through.

The Gophers connected for 10 hits, including multi-hit games from Barnes and junior catcher Shannon Stemper. Eight of the nine in the lineup collected at least one hit, leading to three two-run innings to help stave off a late Spartan’ rally, 6-5.

Michigan State (16-15, 2-2) may have not been able to finish off a late rally Saturday, but Northwestern had no problem rallying against Minnesota Sunday.

The Gophers managed to briefly hold a 2-1 lead following a two-RBI double from Stemper in the sixth, but the Wildcats stormed back for four runs in the final two innings, including a walk-off three-run homer, edging out Minnesota 5-2 in its upset bid.

Northwestern only collected five hits in the game, but made use of them all, leaving just two runners stranded all game long.

The Gophers flexed their muscles in the second game, as sophomore designated player Heidi Carls powered a two-run homer in the second inning and Wheeler added a three-run blast in the third, leading to a 8-2 Minnesota advantage halfway through the game.

But Northwestern (17-9, 4-0) came storming back with 15 unanswered runs in the bottom of the fourth, fifth and sixth innings, displaying a powerful offense with four homeruns, including a pair of grand slams from junior shortstop Tammy Williams. Minnesota had no answer, losing 17-8 in six innings.

“We definitely beat ourselves today,” Conway said. “We were in position to win both games. But if we can play a team like Northwestern this tough, we feel we can play with anybody.”

Williams went 3-3 with eight RBI, while Wheeler led the Gophers, going 2-3 with three RBI.