Gophers eye return trip to NCAAs

by Michael Rand

If it seems weird to see a preview of a team that has played 30 games already this season, consider this: Only a handful of people — outside of those in warm weather locations like Georgia and Texas — have seen the Gophers softball team play this season.
As is the case every season, the extended Minnesota winter forced the team to play the first six weeks on the road. When the Gophers play a doubleheader against Mankato State this afternoon (starting at 4 p.m.), it will be the first chance for them to play in front of a home crowd.
Minnesota started the season 0-3 in the Big Ten after being swept at Michigan State last weekend. But the team is 21-9 overall and in a position to approach or surpass last season’s 44-18 season, which included a trip to the NCAA South Regional. The Gophers returned most of their key players, and are solid in all three phases of the game.
The Gophers are batting a robust .319 through their first 30 games. Although that’s down from last season’s .329 average, it’s still a high figure.
Minnesota is averaging five runs per game, mostly because of the top portion of its lineup. The Gophers three table setters — center fielder Rachel Nelson, second baseman Laura Peters and left fielder Steph Midthun — are batting a combined .398 with 54 runs scored.
When they get on base, it’s a good bet Amber Hegland (.419, 25 RBIs) or Shannon Beeler (5 HRs, 31 RBIs) will drive them in.
“Amber Hegland has been extremely consistent this year,” Gophers coach Lisa Bernstein-O’Brien said.
She added, however, that she would like to see better production from the bottom of the order and a more aggressive approach to hitting throughout the lineup.
“We’re struggling a little right now at getting the key hit. That’s going to be the key to our season,” Bernstein-O’Brien said. “A lot of balls are being hit right at people right now, but sometimes we’re not aggressive enough. We show some signs of brilliance, and sometimes we’re waiting around.”
Bernstein-O’Brien, holding true to an old axiom, says pitching puts teams in the position to win games. Using that logic, the Gophers should have a chance to win virtually every time they take the field.
Steph Klaviter, Wendy Logue and Jennifer Johnson form a dominating trio of starters, just as they did last season. Those three have pitched 187 of a possible 190 innings for the Gophers, with Jennifer Bauer accounting for the other three.
“All three of them have different strengths,” Bernstein-O’Brien said. “Johnson is a great strike-out pitcher. Klaviter is a hard thrower, so she keeps the ball on the ground and doesn’t give up many extra-base hits. Logue has the greatest variety of pitches.”
So far, the staff’s earned run average is a miniscule 1.43. Ten of the team’s 21 wins have been shutouts, and the pitchers have given up just 28 walks compared with 114 strikeouts.
It’s no surprise that Minnesota’s strong pitching staff is also the beneficiary of a sound defensive unit. The Gophers have made 25 errors this season, compared with 46 for their opponent.
Minnesota ranked among the nation’s best in defense for the past four seasons.
“There’s not a weak spot on the team defensively,” said Bernstein-O’Brien, singling out her outfielders and catcher Ann Bartholmey in particular as excellent defensive players.
The team has given up 19 unearned runs at the halfway point in the season after surrendering just 30 all of last year, which is a source of some concern for Bernstein-O’Brien.
“We’ve made a few more errors this season, which is kind of annoying,” she said.
The three losses at Michigan State put the Gophers at an early disadvantage in the Big Ten race, considering they went 17-6 in the conference last year and finished second.
Although Bernstein said the sweep against the Spartans was disappointing, she is still “very excited” about the team’s chances this year.
A return trip to the NCAA tournament is well within reach. But with 12 consecutive home games to start this month, the team is focusing on the present.
“It’s going to happen. We’re going to lose games,” Bernstein-O’Brien said. “I’m not worried about May right now. We have to take care of April first.”