Softball team struggles in Big Ten opener

by Mark Heller

The Minnesota softball team is making people nauseous.
Two weeks ago, the Gophers ran through Florida, winning the South Florida tournament in convincing fashion. Last week, they spent spring break in Ohio, strolling through the Buckeye state with three consecutive sweeps.
By the time they headed home, the consecutive wins hit 12 for the third time in school history.
It all seemed so perfect. A hot-as-can-be team comes home to open the Big Ten season in a brand new stadium.
Four Big Ten losses later, their tournament play doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of their thoughts — six runs in four home games can do that to a team.
“We’re not taking advantage of key turns when we have runners in scoring position, and letting our pitchers and defense play with a couple runs on the board,” Gophers co-coach Lisa Bernstein said, following Sunday’s 5-0 loss to the Wildcats. “That makes things more interesting and more stressful as the game goes on.”
As late as Friday, the Gophers (22-16 overall, 0-4 Big Ten) felt they had things in hand. Sure, they lost twice to Iowa, but the Hawkeyes are ranked 16th in the nation. Besides, in the second game, the Gophers tied the game at two in the top of the seventh only to have it slip away in the next half-inning.
By the time Saturday’s and Sunday’s games were over, Northwestern outscored the Gophers 9-1 in two games.
“Friday was fine because we played pretty well,” said freshman shortstop Shelly Nichols. “Iowa is a very good team. The mood was still ‘We’re pretty well on top of things.’ (Sunday) was a little different because we figured we’d come out and beat them.”
The offense struggled, and things kept rolling. Some players began pressing the issue, and the defense behind freshmen Angie Recknor and Meagan Hautala vanished.
“Of course, if you’re hitting better, things slide by easier when you’re scoring runs,” Nichols said. “If you have an error and you’re hitting well, there’s a different attitude. If you’re struggling, it’s harder to come back when you’re down.”
All the flailings with the bat and the glove poured down upon Recknor and Hautala. In Ohio, Recknor threw the second perfect game and eighth no-hitter in Gophers history over Akron — an incredible accomplishment by itself, let alone for a freshman.
Upon the return to Minnesota, she was the victim of everything. She gave up 31 hits to Iowa, many of those somewhat flukey. After an average outing Saturday (three runs in five-plus innings), she looked sharp early Sunday.
In the fifth inning of a scoreless game on Sunday, she loaded the bases with one out, then got Iowa’s Tammi Jones to pop out for the second out.
On the verge of escaping, however, she gave up back-to-back, two-run singles to Erin Jancic and Brooke Siebel for a 4-0 lead.
Unable to score, things had finally given out.
“Defensively, we tried to do too much with a couple of bunts and pick-offs, and it got us out of our game,” co-coach Julie Standering said. “Our pitching staff is still doing great. We need to get key hits to break open that confidence.”
Too bad for the Gophers, who will have to wait two weeks before playing at home again. It appears they got their first character test of the season after only one weekend. In the meantime, they have a pair of nonconference games in Green Bay before facing the Michigan schools this weekend.
Not fun.
“We’ll be all right,” Standering said. “I’m not too concerned, but I’m a little concerned about how we’re going to react.”

Mark Heller covers softball and welcomes comments at [email protected].