Four losses all but kill Minnesota’s Big Ten Tournament hopes

Two losses each to Illinois and Iowa put the Gophers at 6-12 in the Big Ten.

by Chris Lempesis

Minnesota’s softball team is in a much different position coming out of the weekend than it was going in – and not for the better.

The Gophers, winners of five of six Big Ten games before the start of the weekend, lost all four conference matchups, two each to Illinois and No. 19 Iowa.

Minnesota (25-25, 6-12 Big Ten) suffered 7-6 and 6-5 losses to the Illini on Friday and Saturday, respectively, before dropping a doubleheader to the Hawkeyes by scores of 2-0 and 6-3 on Sunday.

Co-coach Lisa Bernstein said she believes the four losses knock the Gophers out of the running for a spot in the Big Ten Tournament.

“It’s frustrating to know that the kids are giving it everything they have, and they’re very banged up and exhausted,” Bernstein said.

“And yet, to come up short and to know that we’re not going to make it to the Big Ten Tournament is a big disappointment.”

Errors and a failure to get the big hit were the key factors in the losses to Illinois.

Minnesota committed nine errors in the two games. At the plate, the Gophers, who actually outhit the Illini 24-13 in the series, left a total of 23 runners on base in the series.

“You want to get those (runs) in any time you can,” junior second baseman Valerie Alston said. “But sometimes Ö a hitter’s going to fail seven out of 10 times – a good hitter.”

Senior designated player Stephanie Sward said the losses to then-last-place Illinois (22-25, 3-13) were especially hurtful, “because we expect to win those games.”

Iowa’s pitching was the deciding factor in Sunday’s losses.

After starter Lisa Birocci held Minnesota to just two hits in game one, game two starter Ali Arnold and Birocci combined to allow just two earned runs in the 6-3 Hawkeyes (44-10, 11-5) win.

Senior Lyn Peyer pitched for the Gophers in all four games and was tagged with four complete-game losses.

Peyer, who had won six games in a row coming into the weekend, now has a mark of 16-16 on the season.

Minnesota as a team also has a record of .500 and hopes to close out its 2005 campaign on a high note at home next weekend against Wisconsin.

While the team might not have much to play for against the Badgers, Bernstein said it will still give its all.

“(There’s) never trouble getting this group motivated to play,” she said. “They’ve got the heart of a champion.”

But, for now, the team isn’t really thinking about Wisconsin. They’re just thinking about getting a little rest, they said.

“We’re going to take a few days off, get some rest and then we’re going to come back and go right at those Badgers, try and kick their ass,” Alston said.

Catcher still on a tear

One bright spot for the Gophers during the weekend was the continued plate dominance of sophomore catcher Megan Higginbotham.

Higginbotham went 8-for-14 in the four losses, with a home run, two RBIs and four runs.

In Minnesota’s last 12 games, Higginbotham is 27-for-40 (.675), with four home runs and 14 RBIs.