Softball team wants revenge

Jeff Sherry

The Gophers softball team had learned its NCAA fate only an hour earlier. It was Sunday night, about 9:30 p.m., and Minnesota was still celebrating its recent regional tournament bid.
There was so much for the Gophers to process. Their hard work had paid off. The season wasn’t over. They were going to some place called Lafayette, La., and a good weekend there would qualify the team for the College World Series.
Minnesota’s first priorities weren’t Southwestern Louisiana, Nebraska, or Nicholls State — the other three teams at the regional. But the Gophers did have some early thoughts of their competition.
“It doesn’t matter who’s there because we’re so focused and just excited to get the chance to go,” Gophers senior Jenny Lopez said.
“Yet we know things about the teams. We have a little bit extra coming to Southwestern Louisiana and a little bit extra coming to Nebraska. They’ve got something coming to them.”
Minnesota enters another weekend of tournament play today, and once again, the players have revenge on their minds. At last weekend’s Big Ten tourney, the Gophers had their sights on Michigan. Their vengeance is now aimed at Nebraska and Southwestern Louisiana.
The Gophers are not a bunch to forget quickly. Their history with both teams go back to last season, when Minnesota was edged, 2-1, by Southwestern Louisiana, and shut out, 8-0, by Nebraska.
Minnesota won’t have to wait long for its first chance at payback. The Gophers face the No. 18 Cornhuskers in today’s opening game at 4 p.m. They expect a different outcome.
“It’s a whole different ballgame,” Gophers coach Lisa Bernstein said. “There’s different personnel, and we’re obviously a better team this season than we were last year. They’re going to be hungry and ready to beat Minnesota, but we’re going to be ready to go down there and beat Nebraska — and beat them badly.”
Part of Bernstein’s confidence comes from Nebraska’s likely starting pitcher: Stacie Stafford. Minnesota has struggled in the last two weeks against pitches on outside parts of the plate. But Stafford throws mostly rise balls, which the Gophers have done well against this season. Stafford was on the mound in last year’s shutout.
Minnesota’s greatest challenge this weekend may come from Southwestern Louisiana’s top pitcher, Cheryl Longeway. Longeway leads the No. 5 Lady Cajuns with 193 strikeouts, a 0.66 earned-run average, and a 30-6 record.
“She is just a fierce competitor,” Bernstein said. “When she’s on the mound, she is ready to play the game.”
And then there’s the region’s fourth seed, Nicholls State. The Lady Colonels are the forgotten team in Lafayette, which Lopez showed Sunday when she accidentally referred to them as “Troy State.”
Nicholls State, champions of the Southland Conference, earned its regional bid by defeating Hampton, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion. The Lady Colonels, from nearby Thibodaux, La., held their own but were swept, 6-2 and 4-3, at Southwestern Louisiana earlier this year.
One variable going into the weekend is how the Gophers will handle Lafayette’s hot, muggy weather. Today’s forecast calls for a high of 86 degrees. Bernstein was optimistic about the heat’s effects by saying it should prevent her pitchers from getting tight.
Regardless of the weather, the Gophers expect to be loose in this, their first trip to the NCAA regionals since 1991. The players said last weekend’s tournament experience should help them. And the possibility of advancing to next weekend’s College World Series provides any extra motivation the team might need.
“The College World Series has been our dream ever since we got here,” Gophers catcher Ann Bartholmey said. “It’s so weird to see us get so close. It’s so exciting. We’re looking at Nebraska as our first step.”