Alex Tuthill-Preus, Daily File Photo
The Gophers are set to begin their Big Ten schedule this weekend, after going 19-9 in nonconference.
No. 22 Minnesota finished second in the conference last season and will start this year’s slate against Purdue (18-11) on Friday.
“This is what we prepare for all season,” head coach Jessica Allister said. “The preseason is just that. We’ve played a tough schedule against some great opponents, and now it’s time to get after it.”
The Gophers are entering conference plays as one of the favorites for the Big Ten title, one of only two ranked teams from the conference.
The team is adjusting to being one of the Big Ten’s heavyweights after finishing in the top three of the standings three years in a row. The Gophers will not play No. 2 Michigan during the regular season, but the team will host No. 24 Nebraska.
Minnesota is also the last Big Ten team to host a home game, as the team’s first game at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium is April 8.
“It’s going to be hard,” junior pitcher Sara Groenewegen said. “We’re the target on everyone’s schedule this year, so we have to learn to accept that pressure and find out how to handle it.”
Groenewegen is one of the Gophers’ keys to contention as the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year. She enters conference play having already pitched 109 and one-third innings and leads the Big Ten in victories with 14 and strikeouts with 159.
Groenewegen also has a 2.11 earned run average this season while limiting opponents to a .202 batting average.
She is hitting .266 at the plate with three doubles, three home runs and 13 runs batted in, contributing to a Minnesota offense that’s tied for the second-most runs scored in the Big Ten.
The Gophers offense ranks second in on base percentage as well and is fifth in batting average.
Junior Sam Macken boasts the highest batting average on the team at .384, which is 15th on the Big Ten leaderboard. She is also third in hits with 38 and eighth in RBIs with 25.
Macken said the team has its sights set on a Big Ten Championship, after the team won the conference tournament her freshman season.
After the work the team put in during the nonconference schedule, she said it’s definitely possible this season.
“As the season has gone on, we’re just clicking a little more with each game,” Macken said. “I think to win a Big Ten title we just need to keep making that connection as a team and growing on the field each weekend and getting better.”