Gophers head south for season-opening tournament in Jacksonville

Minnesota lost its season opener to Jacksonville on Thursday night, 6-4.

Mark Heise

Heading into the Jacksonville tournament, the Minnesota softball team is facing plenty of uncertainties.

With three infield positions to fill, the Gophers started a four-day, six-game tournament Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla., against the host team, the Dolphins.

But Minnesota’s trip is going to be less about the games and more about the experience for a somewhat young team, coach Julie Standering said.

“We’re looking for quality at bats and a chance to get the jitters out,” she said. “Hopefully this weekend will serve as an opportunity to mature a little bit, so we’re ready to go when we need to pick up wins.”

Quality at bats will be important, as none of the returning players hit more than .241 last season, and only four position players started in 40 or more games.

For such a young team, however, there still are plenty of leaders hoping to help make an impact this season. Junior catcher Shannon Stemper has made strides at the plate, Standering said, and with a big chunk of the Gophers’ offense gone from last season, Stemper said she knew she would need to step into a new role.

“It’s important for me to stay consistent this year and try to be a voice out there,” she said. “I also need to hit for a higher average and maybe help make up for some of our lost power.”

One thing Minnesota shouldn’t have to worry about this season is the quality of its pitching staff. Juniors Katie Dalen and Briana Hassett have had plenty of experience pitching at this level already, with Hassett expected to be the go-to pitcher, having pitched six shutouts last season while holding a 2.13 earned run average.

“We’ve got a ton of experience, both in the outfield and on the pitching mound,” senior outfielder Colleen Powers said. “I feel like this is our pitchers’ year to shine. They know what to expect, and there’s no surprises for them.”

In the six games this weekend, Minnesota will play both Jacksonville and Southern Illinois twice.

Jacksonville will present the Gophers’ pitching with a challenge as senior outfielder Jillian Mirante is coming off last season’s .326 batting average including a pair of inside-the-park home runs.

Mirante stole 10 bases last year, which could make for a good matchup against Stemper’s arm, as the catcher set a goal to throw out more base stealers this season.

Southern Illinois will be returning 13 members from its NCAA tournament team last year, led by sophomore second baseman Alicia Garza. Garza hit .358 last season to earn herself a spot on the Missouri Valley All-Conference first team.

But despite facing some strong hitters, Standering said she had faith in the team’s ability to win.

“We’re going to study the game harder, we’re going to work harder and we’re going to scout our opponents harder,” she said. “We’ve been practicing harder, and we think this will pay off.”