Gophers improve, go 4-3 at the Dome

Brian Stensaas

After losing eight players – five of whom were starters – from last year’s team, there were more than a few question marks for Minnesota’s softball team heading into this season.

After opening the season with an unimpressive 1-3 showing at the Florida State Seminole Classic on Feb. 7-8, the Gophers rebounded over the weekend with a 4-3 output in the Metrodome Classic, good for a second-place finish.

“I’m proud of this team, starting with so many new players,” Gophers co-coach Lisa Bernstein said. “We’re definitely a better team (Sunday) than we were on Thursday walking into this tournament.”

Drake dominated play, winning the Classic with a perfect 7-0 record. The Bulldogs outscored opponents 26-5, including a pair of one-run victories over the three-time defending champion Gophers.

All three of Minnesota’s losses were by one run, but it ended play Sunday with a 6-1 rout of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

The Gophers started things off right by plating three runs in the first inning. Leadoff hitter Stephanie Sward reached on a bunt single before Tonya Mitchell reached on an error. Freshman Megan Higginbotham blasted a ground-rule double, scoring both runners and later scored on a bases-loaded walk to give the Gophers (5-6) all the runs they needed.

Higginbotham led Minnesota going 3-for-4 with four RBIs. Mandy Valadez, one of two freshman pitchers on the roster, earned her first collegiate win, pitching three scoreless innings and allowing just two hits.

Sward went 4-for-4, which drew praise from Bernstein.

“It was important for our leadoff hitters to get on,” she said. “We let our speed take over and hit the ball real well.”

The Gophers are off this week and next compete in the Islander Invitational in Corpus Christi, Texas, on Feb. 27-29. Bernstein said she will use this week and the remainder of the nonconference season to work on hitting.

“This is a young ball club,” she said. “We have some people shifting positions and the bottom half of the lineup needs improvement. But hopefully the team will get there.”