Gophers softball head into Big Ten play with high confidence

Minnesota bested non-conference foes by a total margin of 183-50 and is 25-2.

Freshman Maddie Houlihan throws her bat after a base hit against Wisconsin on April 12 at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium.

Sam Harper, Daily File Photo

Freshman Maddie Houlihan throws her bat after a base hit against Wisconsin on April 12 at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium.

Kyle Steinberg

When you’ve only lost two of your first 27 games, one might say you have the right to be confident.

That’s exactly the mentality the eighth-ranked Gophers softball team is channeling when heading into this weekend’s Big Ten opener at Nebraska (7-17).

“I think it would be a mistake not to draw confidence from the preseason we’ve put together,” said head coach Jessica Allister. “We’ve put together some really good games against some really good teams, so there’s absolutely some confidence – both individually and as a team.”

The Gophers’ bats experienced a lively nonconference schedule — they outscored opponents by a combined score of 183-50 — establishing themselves as a true offensive threat.

One of the leaders of that offensive attack is junior infielder Sydney Dwyer, who stands second on the team in hitting with a .434 batting average, and leads the team in both RBI with 40 and total bases at 57.

Her performance represents a marked improvement from last season, when she batted .302, with just 33 RBI on the year.

“I think from last year, [I have gained] confidence and [gotten] more at bats,” Dwyer said. “The more pitches you see, the more success you’re going to have.”

Perhaps the strongest aspect of the Gophers’ offense is its depth, with seven hitters currently hitting .300 or better. For perspective, Maddie Houlihan — last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year — has improved her batting average by seven points from last season, yet has moved from second to fifth on the team in hitting.

“I think it just shows that we have amazing hitters on our team,” Houlihan said. “It’s really cool that our team is having so much success and there are so many individuals that are contributing.”

Backed up by a talented pitching staff, the Gophers’ potent offense creates a balance that makes Minnesota dangerous.

“There are three aspects to the game: pitching, hitting and defense,” Allister said. “On any given day, if you have two of the three, you have a good chance to win.”

The Gophers look to use that balance to continue their near-flawless start into a conference season that may not present a plethora of challenges.

Outside of Minnesota, the Big Ten features just two ranked teams in No. 19 Michigan (17-7-1) and No. 22 Wisconsin (20-2).

The Gophers will play two games against Wisconsin in Madison, but avoid the Wolverines in the regular season on what looks to be a manageable conference schedule — just two opponents currently have a winning record.

The first true conference test for Minnesota will come next weekend, when the Gophers hit the road for the last time before a three series home stand to play Illinois (18-8). The Illini have won six of their last seven scheduled games, with the only blemish coming in a 6-2 loss to No. 4 Auburn.

While the schedule may not look daunting, the Gophers aren’t taking any opponent for granted — asked which teams could provide the toughest task, Allister replied, “All of them.”