Gophers go to Illinois, Iowa

Minnesota plays its final road weekend of the season todaythrough Sunday.

Going into its final road weekend of the Big Ten season, Minnesota’s softball team has four winnable games against a pair of conference foes.

One is in the cellar, and the other sits near the top. Sitting right in the middle are the Gophers (25-21, 6-8 Big Ten), who are hoping to keep their mindset near that midpoint.

They begin the weekend with a two-game set versus last-place Illinois (20-23, 1-11) today and Saturday before closing things out with a doubleheader against third-place and No. 19 Iowa (41-9, 8-4) on Sunday.

“In the Big Ten, any team on any given day can be one of the best teams in the Big Ten and maybe one of the worst teams,” senior pitcher Lyn Peyer said.

“When you come out against a Big Ten team, we’ve got to be on the top of our game in order to get some big wins here at the end of the season.”

The Illini have not experienced much success this season, and that has a lot to do with the personnel losses they suffered at the end of last season.

Illinois lost 13 letterwinners from last year’s team, which is by far the most of any Big Ten team. The Illini’s inexperience has shown, as they are at or near the bottom in almost every major statistical category in the conference.

Sunday’s doubleheader with the Hawkeyes features two of the hottest teams in the Big Ten. While Minnesota has won five of its last six conference games, Iowa has won six Big Ten games in a row.

“Iowa’s a good ball club,” co-coach Lisa Bernstein said. “They have a great pitcher in Lisa Birocci. They have kids all through their lineup that can hit the ball, and they’re very well-coached. I’m excited about the opportunity to go into their house.”

The Hawkeyes and the Gophers are very similar in that neither team scores a ton of runs, relying instead on their respective pitching staffs and defense.

Sophomore first baseman Rene Konderik said she believes both games will go down to the wire.

“It’s definitely going to be, probably, a head-to-head, seven-inning game – every pitch, every out,” she said.

While Iowa, recordwise, might be much more impressive than Illinois, Minnesota – a team currently in a seventh-place tie in the standings that would make the Big Ten Tournament if it began today – knows it cannot play either opponent differently.

That is, if it wants to move up in the middle of the pack.

“Our heads and our mental approach will be the same,” Peyer said, “knowing that both the wins against Illinois and the wins against Iowa are equally important for us at this time of the season.”