Gophers open conference slate at Michigan and Michigan State

Last season Minnesota finished the Big Ten season in ninth place.

Emily Wickstrom

Minnesota’s softball team already has been on the road for 25-straight games, and it will be no different when it opens Big Ten play.

The Gophers (11-14) face Michigan State tonight and

Saturday in East Lansing, Mich., before taking on No. 9 Michigan in a doubleheader Sunday in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Although Minnesota co-coach Lisa Bernstein said the games against the Spartans will be competitive, the Gophers’ true-test likely will come in facing the Wolverines, the defending NCAA Tournament champions.

“We’re just excited to get out there,” Bernstein said. “The players have worked so hard and have done everything we’ve asked of them.”

If the Gophers want to better their ninth-place conference finish last season, they likely will have to improve their offense.

Junior catcher Megan Higginbotham, who ranks third in the Big Ten with a .425 batting average, so far has been the only Gophers player to get into an offensive groove.

“I’d never like to think it was just one person carrying the team,” Bernstein said.

“But (Higginbotham) is definitely the leader of our offense. She’s done a great job.”

The Gophers’ second-highest batting average comes from freshman Colleen Conway at .233, which is lower than the total average for all Minnesota opponents.

Still, Bernstein said she expects to have a balanced offense.

“Some people who started out hot have cooled off, and people that may have struggled at first are starting to pick it up,” Bernstein said. “But everyone knows they have to step up.”

As was the case last season, the Gophers will have plenty of inexperienced players in important roles.

Although Minnesota has just two underclassmen who are regular starters, the core of its pitching staff is dependent on freshmen.

Briana Hassett leads the team with a 1.73 earned-run average in 19 games, while redshirt freshman Katie

Dalen is also back after recovering from an injury last season.

One of Minnesota’s main goals is to reach the Big Ten Tournament, something it just missed last season.

“We expect to finish in the top half of the Big Ten,” Bernstein said. “And move into the postseason.”