Softball returns to scene of big wins

by Mark Heller

For months now, the memories have stuck in their minds.
The Gophers softball team has the hardware to prove it all happened in real, live color in the form of an award. But the accomplishment itself is beyond the plaque’s inscription: 1999 Big Ten tournament champions.
It was how they did it as much as what they did. A home run in the bottom of the sixth by Shannon Beeler to break a 1-1 tie in the first game against Penn State. Then Dana Ballard’s back-to-back heroics in the next two games, to knock off heavily-favored and top-seeded Michigan twice in two days.
Oh, and the tournament was in Ann Arbor.
And now they come back full circle with a return to the site of their championship run.
“Michigan is always the favorite, regardless of who they lost or who they got,” said Gophers center fielder Tammi Hays. “It gives us a goal to work towards. Last year everybody was ‘Michigan, Michigan,’ and then, ‘Who’s Minnesota?’ and we came out and beat them twice when it really counted.”
But while the memory of their incredible tournament run won’t go away, many from last year’s team had to.
This presents Minnesota with a new identity when it takes the field in Ann Arbor this weekend. But before that trip down memory lane, Michigan State awaits today, where the young Gophers (22-16 overall, 0-4 Big Ten) are in search of positives to find what they’re looking for.
“They’ve graduated three or four All-Americans,” Minnesota co-coach Lisa Bernstein said. “They’re a different team this year just like we’re a different team.”
Specifically, the 11th-ranked Wolverines (26-6, 4-0) graduated Big Ten Player of the Year Traci Conrad and two other All-Americans in Tammy Mika and Catherine Davie.
Fear not, however, they’re still loaded. Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Marie Barda is only a junior, and all-Big Ten pitcher Jamie Gillies and catcher Melissa Gentile are both seniors.
The Gophers’ turnover was a little more substantial in terms of effect on the rest of the team, something not lost on the part of the Wolverines.
“I can only recall a few names,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “But I remember Jordanne Nygren.
“There’s no question a lot of people on this team remember the Big Ten tournament. It is one of our goals every year. We didn’t come to play at the most important time of the year.”
Both sides expressed interest in nothing more than today’s games against other teams Wisconsin for Michigan, Michigan State for the Gophers.
Also at the present are two teams on opposite poles in the Big Ten. While Michigan waltzed over Indiana and Purdue, Minnesota got waxed by Iowa and Northwestern in its stadium debut last week.
The times have become quite different.
“You can’t reinvent the wheel in the middle of April,” Bernstein said. “Right now we’re trying to stay healthy and keep building and learning and teaching, because we knew with seven or eight first-year players this was going to be a year where we would see a new look and building for careers.”
Problem: A young team that is 0-4 heads into the Michigan Monster with an altered look since the last time they flew to Ann Arbor.
But it’s not time to call it quits.
“I don’t think losing four games is going to affect our whole Big Ten season,” Hays said. “0-4 is not the way we wanted to start, but it’s also not how we’re going to finish.”

Mark Heller covers softball and welcomes comments at [email protected]