Minnesota close to top of Big Ten

The team is second in the conference standings with six league games to go.

Freshman Maddie Houlihan throws her bat after a base hit against Wisconsin on Apr. 12 at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium.

Sam Harper, Daily File Photo

Freshman Maddie Houlihan throws her bat after a base hit against Wisconsin on Apr. 12 at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium.

Emily Polglaze

The Gophers are on track for another standout season, but the conference race is getting closer.
 
 
No. 24 Minnesota has six games left in its Big Ten schedule and is fighting for the top spot in the conference. The Gophers are 13-3 in the Big Ten, while No. 2 Michigan is 15-2.
 
 
“I really do believe we can win in a number of ways,” head coach Jessica Allister said. “We have the pitching, the hitting and the defense, and if we have two on any given day, we can win. If we get all three, I think we can beat anyone in the country.”
 
 
The Gophers won eight of their first nine conference games and were first in the standings before an April 12 doubleheader against Wisconsin.
 
 
Minnesota lost both games to the Badgers, which allowed Michigan to pull out in front. The Wolverines haven’t lost a Big Ten game since April 8, a winning streak of 10 games.
 
 
The two teams will not face each other in the regular season but will compete in the standings the rest of the way.
 
 
Michigan is the top-ranked team in the Big Ten in hitting, pitching and fielding. The Gophers are ranked third, second and seventh, respectively.
 
 
The Wolverines have a lower team ERA than Minnesota, but junior Sara Groenewegen has been the Big Ten’s best pitcher in conference play, with a 1.71 ERA in 13 league games.
 
 
The Gophers do have an easier finish to their Big Ten season than Michigan. Minnesota’s last two conference opponents, Maryland and Iowa, are tied for the worst league record at 3-14.
 
 
“We have to have the thought process that we could lose every game or win every game from here on out,” freshman first baseman Maddie Houlihan said. “Six more wins in the Big Ten wouldn’t hurt. We never know if Michigan could lose one or what could happen. I think we’re still in the running.”
 
 
The Wolverines, on the other hand, play at Penn State this weekend. The Nittany Lions are third in the Big Ten standings and own the conference’s best team batting average in league games.
 
 
Michigan finishes its regular season by hosting Rutgers, which is in a three-way tie for eighth place.
 
 
If the Wolverines stumble and the Gophers finish strong, Minnesota could earn its first regular season title since 1991.
 
 
The Gophers did win the conference tournament in 2014, but the team has never won the regular season and tournament titles in the same year.
 
 
“We’ve had a couple of unfortunate losses, but it’s still a very realistic goal for us to win the Big Ten. Whether that’s the regular season or the tournament, we’d like to do both,” senior center fielder Paige Palkovich said. “Right now it’s just fine-tuning little things and finding ways to be playing our best softball once we get to the postseason, and I think we’re on the right track to doing that.”