Gophers entering unfamiliar territory

Minnesota will open its first Big Ten tourney since 2004 against Purdue.

by Mark Heise

When the Minnesota softball team suits up to play in its first Big Ten tournament game since 2004, it will be facing an unknown.

Thanks to a rainout earlier in the season, the Gophers will face Purdue in the quarterfinals Friday at 11:30 a.m. on the Northwestern campus, making it the first meeting this season between the two teams.

And although Minnesota hasn’t seen the Boilermakers live this season, the team appeared to be optimistic about the meeting.

“The coaches are really good at giving us a good scouting report,” senior outfielder Casey Wheeler said. “So it’s just a matter of us going in and firing right away. We won’t have thoughts in the back of our minds about the last time, so we should be focused.”

Purdue has proven to be a tough team to beat this season, and one of the keys has been consistent hitting throughout the lineup, posting a .274 batting average as a team.

Junior second baseman Kelly Miller leads the team, hitting .351, but isn’t much of a power hitter. Of Miller’s 53 hits, 50 have been singles.

Her infield counterpart in junior shortstop Candace Curtis can more than make up for that, however, posting a .340 average with 10 doubles, 11 homeruns and 39 RBI.

The Boilermakers compliment their offense with solid pitching, mixing in junior Dana Alcocer’s 3.28 ERA and 18 wins with the solid pitching of freshman Suzie Rzegocki.

Rzegocki posted a 2.59 ERA and 15 wins over the regular season.

But the Achilles heel of Purdue this season has been a lack of consistent defense. The team holds just a .965 fielding percentage and have committed 25 errors on the left side of the infield.

The Gophers’ entire infield committed just 19 errors all season long.

Along with an edge on defense, Minnesota will have to get production out of the top part of its lineup.

The Gophers have received support throughout the lineup this year, but it’s the top five that have recorded 97 of the team’s 156 RBI this season.

Junior third baseman Colleen Conway leads the team in average from the leadoff position, hitting .333 this season, while senior outfielder Sila Fernandez boasts a .308 average while collecting 22 RBIs.

Freshman Malisa Barnes has proven to be Minnesota’s biggest power threat, hitting .313 while belting out four home runs. Junior catcher Shannon Stemper anchors the top four with a .305 average.

Beyond those top four, the Gophers are only hitting .200 as a team, which could cause problems.

Minnesota did have a solid game throughout the lineup against Wisconsin last week however, which coach Lisa Bernstein called encouraging.

“I was glad to see last weekend that all of our starters were hitting the ball,” she said. “We got production at the top and the bottom of the lineup, and after seeing that I’m feeling really calm about this weekend.”

With no conference tournament experience throughout the entire roster, it would be very easy to be anything but calm.

But senior outfielder Colleen Powers said it was a team goal that would be keeping the team focused amidst all the excitement.

“We’re going in with the mindset that we’re here to win,” she said. “We’re going to stay focused, take this one pitch at a time and try to make a run for the championship.”