Series next step for Gophers softball

Michael Dougherty

Finishing as the runners-up in NCAA regional tournament is not good enough for the No. 22 Gophers softball team. They want a trip to the Women’s College World Series.
Minnesota surprised California and Cal-State Northridge in the first round of the NCAA tourney, before bowing out to eventual national champion Fresno State.
Gone from that Gophers team, which set a program record with 48 wins, are career hits leader Amber Hegland (a current member of the Gophers women’s hockey team), career stolen base leader Laura Peters and pitcher Wendy Logue.
But it’s who is still here that is garnering talk of a Big Ten title and hopes of hosting one of the tournament’s regionals.
Back for their senior seasons are shortstop Shannon Beeler and pitcher Steph Klaviter.
Beeler was an All-American last season after finishing with a .401 average and team records of 14 home runs and 74 RBIs.
Klaviter, meanwhile, is considered by many to be the dominant pitcher in the conference, and she is six shy of a team-record 67 wins.
“We definitely have more talent than last year, and we know in our minds what we can accomplish,” Klaviter said. “This whole team really has its goal set on the World Series.”
The reason for Klaviter’s optimism comes from the additions of a number of key players who co-head coaches Lisa Bernstein and Julie Standering have added to the club that went 48-21.
With Logue’s eligibility up, the coaches knew they had to add some pitching help. Sophomore Rayny Camacho was 9-1 last year, and Standering said she has added a screw ball and some much-needed maturity.
Also stepping in is Camacho’s Farmington, N.M., high school teammate, freshman Heather Brown, and junior Fullerton College transfer Michelle Harrison.
Klaviter, Camacho and Brown are all right-handers, but Harrison will add a new dimension from the left side of the mound. Both coaches said they expect the experienced Harrison to be an intimidating force.
“She is such a complement to the other three because she can throw off-speed and left-handed,” Bernstein said. “Her and Heather are completely different pitchers, and the combination is going to be pretty unstoppable.”
Both coaches agree this is the best team they have had. Bernstein is beginning her eighth season at Minnesota, and Standering has been an assistant or associate coach for all of Bernstein’s tenure.
Standering said she was offered a few head coaching positions at other schools, but wanted to stay at Minnesota. Ultimately, she was offered a promotion to share head coaching duties with Bernstein, and both coaches said they are happy with the outcome.
“There were other offers,” Standering said. “But through Chris Voelz and McKinley Boston we created a situation which we are all thrilled with.”
The coaches said this squad is the best team they have assembled with strengths in all three important aspects — hitting, pitching and fielding.
But helping to protect the powerful Beeler in the lineup will be another key to the success of this team. The heir to Beeler’s heavy-hitting throne is one of Camacho and Brown’s high school teammates, second baseman Jordanne Nygren.
“We have no lapses in our lineup,” Bernstein said. “There’s no place where the other team can look and say ‘I’m not going to pitch to Shannon,’ because we have any one of three or four women who can hit the ball out of the ballpark.”
Sophomore Angel Braden returns to the lineup after tearing up her knee last year against Ohio State. Before her injury she had put up some impressive numbers — a .289 average and 16 RBIs in just 31 games.
Senior catcher Erin Brophy also is a long-ball threat at the plate, and provides veteran leadership behind the plate. Juniors Dana Ballard and Michelle Bennett will split time at first.
In the outfield, centerfielder Steph Midthun returns for her final season as the lead-off hitter. Midthun and Peters each broke the team record for stolen bases last year with 31. Midthun will be flanked by sophomore Morgan Holden and freshman Tammi Hays from Hastings.
Michigan (No. 5) and Iowa (No. 16) are the only other Big Ten schools ranked in the preseason top 25. Gophers players and coaches alike feel they have a great shot at the conference title.
“There is no reason why we shouldn’t finish at the top of the conference,” Klaviter said. “I’m confident of that.”
ù The Gophers begin the season with the Metrodome Softball Classic which starts Friday. The tournament is a five-team round robin that features Missouri, Kansas, Western Illinois, Northern Illinois and Minnesota. Missouri beat Kansas for last year’s title, while the Gophers finished third.