Gophers deal with harsh reality

Michael Rand

Something didn’t feel right to Rene Sbrocco on Monday afternoon. It’s wasn’t the kind of feeling you get when you think you’re in danger or have a nagging suspicion that you forgot to turn your iron off.
It was the end of an identity.
For the past four years, she’s been Renee Sbrocco, Gophers softball player. After Minnesota completed its season Sunday and failed to make the Big Ten tournament, the senior had to start thinking about just being “Renee.”
Complicating matters is the possibility that the Gophers (37-19), because of their strong overall record, have an outside shot at making the NCAA regional tournament when bids for the 32-team field are announced Sunday. Sbrocco and her teammates — particularly her six fellow seniors — are coping with the notion of moving on and trying to hold on at the same time.
“It’s this big ol’ limbo stage,” Sbrocco said. “I don’t know what to think. There’s a part of me that’s hoping and praying that Sunday will be a good day. Then there’s reality hitting, saying that it’s just not going to happen. We need a lot of luck.”
Regardless of whether the Gophers make the NCAA field or not, they aren’t allowed to hold formal practices this week. So instead of shagging fly balls or taking swings in the batting cage in preparation for the conference tournament — something Sbrocco and her teammates expected to be doing — she spent Monday wondering how to fill her day.
She wasn’t alone.
“(Monday) was the first day of not doing anything. We were like, ‘What are we supposed to do.’ There was no practice, no lifting,” senior All-America outfielder Rachel Nelson said. “I called Renee, and I said, ‘What are we supposed to do right now.’ She was like, ‘I don’t know.’ Maybe we should call coach and have her make up a practice schedule.”
Sbrocco, Nelson and the rest of the team knew this point would come sometime. But a season of what they consider underachievement made the possibility of this being the end even more frustrating.
Last season, the Gophers finished second and advanced to the NCAA regional. With all three starting pitchers and most of their starting lineup coming back, the logical next step was a Big Ten championship and a strong showing at NCAAs.
But Minnesota went 10-13 this year in the Big Ten — 2-7 in one-run games — to finish in a tie for sixth in the conference. A three-week hitting slump to end the season and a remarkable lack of good fortune sealed the team’s fate.
“Everything was so streaky,” Nelson said. “It all came together for us a couple times, and those were the eight-run games that you see. But in the tight ball games, when we needed it, a lot of times we didn’t come through.”
The question of “Why?” is the one that eludes the team. Junior Amber Hegland and coach Lisa Bernstein-O’Brien attributed it to bad breaks and untimely hitting.
Sbrocco, a psychology major, delved a little deeper.
“We definitely pressed,” she said. “I know that as a senior, I tried so hard. Softball is so mental. You have to let the game come to you. You’re bulging your eyes out to see the ball, and you don’t.
“There were times that I went up with so much intensity to win that I tried too hard. And the hitter before me would do the same thing, and the hitter after me would do the same thing.”
Maybe last year was too easy?
“I think that was the difference,” Sbrocco said. “This year was harder. It wasn’t because the pitching was faster or the balls were hit harder, but maybe we felt too much like we had to do it. It was more, ‘We have to do this.’ Last year was more like, ‘Wow, look what we did.'”
The result of that leads to another difference, one that isn’t lost on any of the Gophers players. Tuesday was a beautiful day — “a nice day for softball,” Hegland said. But the Bierman Softball Complex was empty.
The field will come alive again on Monday if the Gophers get the regional bid. A chance at redemption would be sweet, Nelson said, adding that she would give her two front teeth for another chance.
But while Nelson is optimistic, she’s also realistic. No team has ever made it to the NCAA regionals without playing in the Big Ten tournament. Last year was the first year all four conference tournament teams got regional bids. Sbrocco said she doesn’t think the Gophers will get a bid.
“In the seventh inning Sunday, I was sitting out in right field, smelling my glove, trying to keep the feeling alive within me,” Sbrocco said. “I knew that it could possibly be the last time I would play.”
If Sunday’s game against Purdue — fittingly for this season, a 3-2 loss — was the last one, it’s going to be a tough adjustment.
“I miss it already, and it’s only been one day,” Nelson said. “I’d give anything just to have two more weeks of fly balls. Right now, two more weeks is a lot.”