Gophers to host a pair of Big Ten offensive juggernauts this weekend

by Mark Heise

It might be a cold weekend for the Minnesota softball team, but after playing 27 games on the road, home should be comforting for the Gophers.

Minnesota finally returns to Jane Sage Cowles Stadium to kick off its home season with two games against Iowa, the first tonight at 6 before playing the Hawkeyes again Saturday at noon. The Gophers will play a doubleheader Sunday against Illinois, beginning at noon.

And despite the same expected harsh weather that kept Minnesota away from home for the first two months of the season, coach Lisa Bernstein said it was good to be back home.

“It’s great to be at home, even though the weather isn’t what we’d like,” she said. “It’s going to be a cold weekend, but we just have to stay mentally tough and get the job done.”

Things could get interesting for the Gophers, as the team has yet to practice outdoors and will not until time for warm-ups tonight.

But sophomore second baseman Colleen Conway said she felt that despite the lack of outdoor preparation, Minnesota should have the advantage.

“Most of our team is from Minnesota, so we know what it’s like to be in the cold,” she said. “We’ve dealt with this weather throughout high school so we know we can play in the cold. Other teams might back down or shy away from this weather, but we’ll capitalize on them doing that.”

Iowa makes the short trip looking to add to its current 10-game win streak. The Hawkeyes have proven to be an offensive-minded team, hitting .294 as a team.

Junior Emily Nichols leads Iowa, hitting .432 with nine home runs and a .741 slugging percentage. The Hawkeyes (28-13, overall, 4-0 Big Ten) have five players hitting above .300 and average 4.7 runs per game. Opponents are averaging less than three runs per contest.

But Minnesota (13-14, 0-2) senior Megan Higginbotham didn’t seem to be intimidated by those numbers.

“We’ve been preparing all season for Big Ten play, and we’re ready to compete with anyone in the conference,” she said. “Our lineup has been producing hits from top to bottom, and I think this weekend should be a good opportunity for us.”

Sunday should be less of a challenge, as Illinois split series with Indiana and Purdue last weekend, two of the weaker teams in the conference, and have struggled early in the pitching department.

The Illini give up over four runs per game on average, as a lack of pitching has been the team’s downfall so far this season.

But lllinois (23-14, 2-2) is more than capable of hitting the ball, boasting a .315 team average, including seven players hitting above .300. Sophomore Lana Armstrong leads the way, hitting .450 to go with 11 homers and an amazing slugging percentage of .900.

Against offensive power like this, the Gophers will likely have to be sharper offensively than they’ve been this season. But Conway said she feels confident in the team’s ability to take the next step up.

“We’ve had strong performances from our pitchers, our defense and our offense this year, but we haven’t been able to put all three together in one game,” she said.

“I think this weekend will be the time we finally get all three of those working together. If we can get those three parts working well at the same time, we’ll be tough to beat.”