Gophers taking advantage of Big Ten midweek break

In the midst of the tight competition of the Big Ten season, the Minnesota softball team has to appreciate a midweek game.

The Gophers (23-14 overall, 6-6 Big Ten) take a break from a demanding conference schedule Thursday to host South Dakota State in a doubleheader at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium starting at 4 p.m.

After a grueling 13-inning affair at Iowa on Sunday, a non-conference game might be just what Minnesota needs.

“It’s nice even having a midweek game,” senior second baseman Amber Nelson said. “This game will be a good opportunity to go back and work on our fundamentals, and hopefully get our confidence back too.”

The Jackrabbits (15-24, 8-7) enter the series after having lost four of their last five games, on the back end of what has so far been a season-long road trip.

South Dakota will play its first home game of the season Friday, making Minnesota its last stop in a 13-city tour.

The Jackrabbits have struggled from a pitching standpoint this season, with both pitchers on the staff sporting an ERA of above five.

Junior pitcher Jenna Marston has received most of the workload so far, pitching 211 of the team’s 249 innings this season.

Offensively, South Dakota is fairly solid, with six legitimate hitters keeping the team batting average above .280.

One of the keys to success for the Gophers may be getting to the Jackrabbits early. South Dakota has given up 27 more runs in the third inning alone than any other inning, and has only won two of 22 games when trailing after four innings.

While coach Lisa Bernstein said the team would look to get ahead early, she mentioned the strategy was no different from any other game.

“We always want to go out there and get (Colleen) Conway or (Sila) Fernandez on and let the big girls do their job, so we’ll take that same approach.”

Another thing going against South Dakota is the fact that 39 games into the season, the Jackrabbits have yet to win a night game.

Meanwhile, Minnesota has been successful at home and in the evenings this season, and has been dominant in the pitching circle all year long.

The only real concern is the recent disappearance of what had been a strong offensive team earlier in the season.

But freshman first baseman Malisa Barnes said a midweek game like this could be the answer to that problem as well.

“It’ll be nice to have two games without the pressure of playing conference games to get our batting back in order,” she said. “I think having a game where we can relax more and just swing the bat will be beneficial for us.”