Big Ten conference preview: more parity than ‘09

Minnesota opens conference play with a two-game series against Penn State this weekend.

Big Ten conference preview: more parity than ‘09

Marco LaNave

For a softball team that has shown its youth early in the season, the start of the Big Ten schedule may be a welcomed change. At the end of a stretch of 34 games in 39 days, Gophers co-head coach Lisa Bernstein said Sunday the new players have been a little overwhelmed by the rigorous nonconference schedule. âÄúWe keep telling them what travelâÄôs like and how exhausting [it is], and theyâÄôre finally getting a sense of it,âÄù Bernstein said. After playing at least five games each of the last six weekends, the Gophers (14-20) will open the Big Ten season with a two-game series at Penn State on Saturday and Sunday. âÄúWhen you get to prepare for one team going into a weekend, itâÄôs completely different,âÄù Bernstein said. Minnesota had to brace itself for games against as many as five teams in a three-day span during the early part of the season. Now the team will have familiarity as an advantage, and Bernstein said in-game execution becomes the bottom line. The Gophers currently have the Big TenâÄôs lowest team batting average, but theyâÄôve done a better job of moving runners and driving them in during their current season-high three-game winning streak. Freshman third baseman Alex Davis, who has hit a team-leading six home runs, said the team trusts its hitting techniques more. âÄú[WeâÄôre] just accepting things for what they are and trying to move people and get on base,âÄù Davis said. âÄúSimple base hits are what IâÄôve always looked for âĦ ItâÄôs good to see that hard work finally pays off.âÄù Meanwhile, another freshman has carried the Gophers to each of their victories this season. Lacey Middlebrooks, so far the leading pitcher on a staff that lost Big Ten-strikeout leader Briana Hassett, has a 14-9 record that includes 18 complete games, four shutouts and several close losses. âÄúIâÄôm getting to the point that itâÄôs becoming more of a routine just to relax through all the pitches,âÄù said Middlebrooks, who is second in the Big Ten in strikeouts. Middlebrooks said the teamâÄôs goal is to do better than last yearâÄôs 6-14 record, which resulted in an eighth-place finish in the Big Ten. The conference sent six teams to last yearâÄôs NCAA tournament, and Bernstein said this season there is more parity and deeper lineups and benches. âÄúThis conference is tough as nails,âÄù she said. âÄúWe want to slow it down, take it one game at a time and keep learning, keep growing.âÄù HereâÄôs a look at the Big Ten teams that made the NCAA tournament, in order of 2009 finish: Michigan The Wolverines reached the College World Series last season for the first time since winning the 2005 national championship. They have won or tied for the Big Ten regular season title 12 times in the last 18 seasons. They return three All-Big Ten first-team position players and pitcher of the year Nikki Nemitz, who has been outdone in the early going by teammate Jordan Taylor (team-leading 12 wins, Big Ten-best 1.22 ERA among pitchers with at least 40 innings). Michigan will be the first team to visit the Gophers at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium this season in a two-game series April 10-11. Ohio State The Buckeyes reached the programâÄôs first-ever NCAA super regional last season. They return the programâÄôs all-time home run leader in catcher Sam Marder, who tied for the Big Ten lead in 2009 with 19 homers and has 11 already this season. After losing All-Big Ten second-team pitcher Kim Reeder to graduation, Ohio State has used three pitchers regularly this season, led by Melanie Nichols (7-0, 2.03 ERA). Northwestern The Wildcats graduated last yearâÄôs Big Ten player of the year in shortstop Tammy Williams, but they return freshman of the year Adrienne Monka, a first baseman who led the Big Ten in RBIs, tied for the lead in home runs and was third in batting average in 2009. Iowa The Hawkeyes lost All-Big Ten first-team players in pitcher Brittany Weil and outfielder Colleen McGlaughlin. Second baseman Chelsey Carmody hit one home run and had 18 RBI last season, but she leads the team with a .372 average and already has six homers this season. Illinois Seven starters returned for the Illini, who are by far leading the conference in hitting with a .334 team average through Sunday. Second baseman Danielle Zymkowitz leads three players with averages in the top four of the Big Ten. Purdue The Boilermakers return only eight players, but four of them were named to all-conference teams in 2009. Third-team All-Big Ten pitcher Suzie Rzegocki went 24-12 in 2009, but she is just 7-11 this season. The others In the last six years, Penn State, Minnesota, Michigan State, Indiana and Wisconsin havenâÄôt cracked the top four in the Big Ten standings, with the exception of Minnesota in 2008. Among these five programs, only that Gophers team has produced a winning record in Big Ten play the last four years.