Gophers now a force to be reckoned with in Big Ten

Minnesota will play its home opener this weekend against Purdue.

Mark Heise

The Minnesota softball team played competitive games against Northwestern, one of the best teams in the nation, last week.

Now, the Gophers (19-10 overall, 2-2 Big Ten) prepare for their home opener with an entirely different attitude than last year.

Senior outfielder Casey Wheeler made it clear Tuesday that Minnesota is no longer a team to be taken lightly, and said the Gophers hope to show that as they host Indiana and Purdue this weekend.

Indiana faces the Gophers at 6 p.m. Friday and at a time to be determined Saturday, likely by the weather. Purdue plays Minnesota at noon Sunday. All games are scheduled to be at the Jane Sage Cowles Stadium.

“I don’t think people should face us the way they faced us last year,” she said. “The way we hung in those games last weekend showed a different side of Minnesota that maybe hasn’t come out yet, but is definitely there.”

After winning just one conference game two years ago, and four last year in a rain-shortened season, the Gophers are certainly on the right track, and jumped to a good start by sweeping Michigan State before losing a pair of games to the Wildcats, despite leading in both.

But Purdue will present a new challenge, having swept the Gophers in the past two seasons.

The Boilermakers are proving to be tough once again this season, boasting a team batting average of .290, including four players holding a double-threat with home run power and an ability to hit for high average.

On top of that, freshman pitcher Suzie Rzegocki will be coming off of a one-hitter thrown earlier in the week, providing a threat to Minnesota hitters.

Indiana (9-23, 0-4) is not the same kind of powerful team Purdue is, and is yet to pick up a Big Ten win this season. The Gophers’ pitching staff should be able to pick apart the Hoosiers’ weak offense in an attempt to match their number of wins last year during the first two weeks of this season.

Indiana is hitting just .209 this year and hasn’t received much help from its pitching staff, which has posted an ERA of 4.73.

And with Minnesota’s strong tandem of pitching, combined with a surprisingly strong lineup including five players batting over .300, the Gophers seem to be on the right track.

But even with this in their favor, junior third baseman Colleen Conway said her team still needed to take steps to ensure success.

“We need to get off to a good start offensively,” Conway said. “We need to keep working on getting clutch hits with people on base. I think that’s going to be our key.”

Minnesota has not had a problem with that so far this season, as every spot in the order has produced runs for the Gophers.

Coach Lisa Bernstein outlined that as one of the team’s strengths so far this season.

“We’ve been talking about this since day one; we need a different hero every day,” Bernstein said. “And we’re getting that. We’re getting home runs from the bottom of the order, the top two kids in our order are coming up with some clutch hits.”

“It doesn’t matter where we get the RBI from in the lineup, we’re just focused on making sure that we have one more than the other team at the end of the game.”