U softball looks for firmer tourney grip

by Michael Dougherty

Entering the most important week of her squad’s schedule, the last thing Gophers softball coach Lisa Bernstein-O’Brien wanted to do was spend an extra night in Indiana because of flight delays.
But thanks to the delays that Northwest Airlines has been experiencing because of a union slow-down, the 21st-ranked Gophers had to stay in Indiana after their three-game series with the Hoosiers.
Minnesota (39-16, 10-8 in the Big Ten) finally got back to town early Monday morning and now must turn its attention to preparing for some crucial conference games this week.
With two games against Wisconsin (18-27-1, 7-12) on Wednesday before a season-ending three-game series with Michigan State (30-17, 11-10) on Saturday and Sunday, Minnesota hopes to widen its slim lead over the Spartans for the fourth and final tournament spot.
But before the Wisconsin doubleheader, the Gophers will host Iowa State in a non-conference doubleheader Tuesday.
The Cyclones come to Minnesota with a 15-23 record, but their record is a bit deceiving because they play in the tough Big 12. The conference boasts the No. 5 team in the nation, Oklahoma, as well as 12th-ranked and 18th-ranked Oklahoma State and Missouri, respectively.
Iowa State beat Iowa two days after the Hawkeyes swept a doubleheader from the Gophers, so Bernstein-O’Brien is not taking them lightly.
“They’re coming off some pretty impressive wins over the past couple weeks, having beat Missouri twice,” she said. “We can’t look past them.”
Year’s Sconny
Wednesday’s games with Wisconsin mark the one-year anniversary of the day the Gophers dropped two bizarre games to the Badgers, essentially knocking them out of the Big Ten tournament.
Former Gophers pitcher Jennifer Johnson had a no-hitter going with one out in the seventh and the Gophers on top 2-0. She promptly gave up singles to the No. 7 and No. 8 hitters, bringing the No. 9 hitter to the plate. That hitter immediately sent a Johnson pitch over the left field wall for a 3-2 win.
The other game found the Gophers trailing 3-1, with two runners on and Amber Hegland at plate. Hegland lined a shot to left field that was sure to tie the game. But the left fielder made a great shoestring catch and then threw out former Gopher Rachel Nelson for a game-ending double play.
“It would have tied the game,” Hegland said. “It kind of pissed me off, so I’ve got something to give them back on Wednesday.”
The short stop’s here
Gophers shortstop Shannon Beeler was named Big Ten Player of the Week on Monday, based on her play last week.
In seven games last week, the junior was 12-for-21 with nine RBIs and seven runs scored. Of her 12 hits, seven were for extra bases, including five doubles and two home runs.
She was also perfect in the field, converting all 27 chances she had without an error.
Despite a recent swoon that saw her average dip 37 points, Beeler has fixed a slight glitch in her swing and is again ripping the ball.
“That’s a great honor,” Beeler said of the weekly award. “I’ve worked on a few little mechanical things that Coach B has talked to me about, and luck has been working my way a little bit, too.”
Bernstein-O’Brien said Beeler has switched to a 33-inch, 26-ounce triple-walled Louisville Slugger, and added that it takes a powerful swing to get that bat through the strike zone as quick as she does.
“She hurts the ball when she touches it, I’ll tell you that much,” Bernstein-O’Brien said.
With 10 homers, Beeler needs one more to tie the single-season record set by Jennifer McGuinness in 1996.
Who’s in first
Beeler and third baseman Hegland are duking it out for the career RBI lead. Hegland, a senior, was in the lead at the end of last season, but Beeler has been putting on a good chase so far this year.
She finally caught Hegland when her two-run home run pushed her career RBI total to 170. Hegland is sitting at 169.
In addition to the career RBI title, Beeler’s two-run homer also broke her old single-season record for RBIs she set in 1996, of 62. She currently has 63.
John Hinckley, Jr. liked her, too
Catcher Erin Brophy is majoring in sociology of law and criminology. Her ultimate career goal is to be an FBI agent who specializes in the investigation of the criminally deviant.
The impetus for her interest was the film “Silence of the Lambs,” which starred Jodie Foster as an FBI trainee named Clarice Starling.
“I saw that movie and I was like, I want to be Clarice Starling,'” Brophy said.
Apparently the junior from Crystal, Minn., wants to give new meaning to the term “catching criminals.”
I’ll take infielders for .400
In 1996, Hegland and Nelson became the first Gopher teammates to each hit .400 for an entire season.
This season, second baseman Laura Peters has joined infield partners Beeler and Hegland in an assault on the record books.
Hegland is stroking the ball for a .453 average, Beeler is at .429 and Peters is at an even .400.
This will likely be the third straight year Hegland has finished the season hitting .400. She has a career average of .408.