Young softball team opens season at .500

Mark Heller

The Minnesota softball team is, in a word: youth.
It is inevitable and practically cyclical in nearly every collegiate sport. And with youth comes greater ups and downs over the course of a season.
A very few select teams, like Duke basketball, can take youth and roll on like nothing changed. Most, like the softball team, go through a valley of sorts before taking a run at the top.
The Gophers reached that peak last season, tying a school record for wins with 48 and upsetting top-seeded Michigan twice in two days to win the Big Ten tournament. Armed with an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, Minnesota won its first two games before meeting a Duke-like UCLA, then losing 3-0 to Missouri.
The crutch of 1999’s success, and this year’s youth was right up the middle: pitcher Steph Klaviter, shortstop Shannon Beeler and centerfielder Steph Midthun.
They’re all gone, as are key contributors Erin Brophy and Lara Severson, plus pitchers Michelle Harrison (out of eligibility) and Heather Brown (transferred to New Mexico).
But the biggest losses are the Gophers’ all-time leader in wins (Klaviter), quite possibly the best complete hitter in school history (Beeler) and an All-American lead-off hitter (Midthun).
Harrison’s relief pitching was instrumental in winning the Big Ten tournament, the then-freshman Brown had great potential and Brophy was a solid hitter and occasional catcher.
What was a supporting cast last season are the main actresses this season.
The veterans are seniors Michelle Bennett and Dana Ballard, junior Angel Braden and sophomores Jordanne Nygren and Tammy Hays. That translates to seven newcomers, including the entire pitching staff. Angie Recknor, a two-time Minnesota state player of the year from Hopkins appears to be the new staff ace. Hays and Veronica Roberts, two speed demons, anchor the outfield and Shelly Nichols takes Beeler’s spot at shortstop.
The Metrodome Softball Classic
Regardless of the player turnover, co-coach Lisa Bernstein (along with Juli Standering) shuns at the term “rebuilding.” For the team’s sake, they can’t worry about what was lost but what they have.
“We’re not rebuilding. We’re being creative,” Bernstein said after a 4-0 loss to Louisville in Sunday’s semifinal of the Metrodome Softball Classic.
“We’ve got three new arms in the circle, and one of them is going to have the majority of time. We’ve got new people doing different roles. You just don’t know after the first weekend. We’re not yet where we want to be, but we had a good start.”
After a solid fall season, the Metrodome Classic kicked off the spring season. After losing the first two games of the tournament on Thursday, a young Gophers team responded with a 7-3 win over Northern Iowa on Friday and two more wins on Saturday before falling to Louisville.
A 3-3 start to the season might not sound very impressive, but Bernstein was quick to note that, “We started last year in the Metrodome 3-3 and ended up in (an NCAA regional) at UCLA.”
Alabama beat Louisville to win the Classic.
Despite the lack of hitting in Sunday’s game (no runs, four hits) Minnesota had several bright spots.
Nygren, the team’s sophomore second baseman and the lone proven slugger, became the first Gopher ever to hit two home runs in one game on three occasions Saturday.
Despite the many reminders that she doesn’t try to hit home runs, the prospect of 200-foot fences — 15-feet shorter than Minnesota’s new softball stadium will have when it opens in March — inside the Dome opened her eyes.
“I’m not going for home runs. I try not to think about that, but it’s tempting,” said Nygren after Saturday’s games. “Even 190 feet kills me. I see that and I’m like, ‘See ya.'”
Despite a four-run fourth inning Sunday — thanks in large part to the Dome’s turf — Bernstein was very impressed with Recknor, who threw 40 of 41 innings during the tournament. She got all three wins.
Bernstein also gave accolades to catcher Christine Lindberg, who filled in for a gimpy Meghan Smith. Roberts, the freshman outfielder, might have secured herself the lead-off spot in the order. She got on base every game — including four hits in Saturday’s early game — and took four stolen bases.
Defensively, the Gophers made several nice plays and committed four errors, but only one in the last four games.
“Coming out here the first day, there were a lot of things in my mind,” Recknor said. “I wanted to pitch well, and being a freshman, I wanted to be in the right frame of mind.
“I’ve been pitching for seven years now, so I know I can do that. I think at this point we don’t have a lot to lose, so let’s just go out there and play ball. I’m letting everything go.”
Looking ahead
The Gophers will head south for most of the next month. This weekend they will be in Raleigh, N.C., for the Triangle Classic. Then comes Texas A&M and then Clearwater, Fla.
Minnesota will open its Big Ten season March 31 against Iowa.
The Hawkeyes will open up the Gophers’ new softball stadium. Built on top of the old Bierman Stadium, the new stadium will be similar to the new soccer stadium which opened this past fall. It will seat 1,000 fans with grandstand and stadium seating.
Along with the playing field, the building will have dugouts and a bullpen, a two-story building with concessions and athletic training and a press box.
John and Sage Cowles helped fund the new facility with a $1 million donation.
“It’ll be so neat to look at the fans sitting in real seats instead of wooden bleachers,” Nygren said. “We finally get a really nice stadium. I’m a little overwhelmed; we actually get to walk through a gate.”
While a new facility might usher in a new era of Minnesota softball, the Gophers hope this season doesn’t end, but continue where they left off in the ’90s. This team has a real chance to be successful, and, if nothing else, this season’s rather juvenile roster will try and live outside of last season’s shadow.
“This team is young and has a ton of heart,” Bernstein said. “We’re not huge in numbers, but they’re very enthusiastic. They don’t lay down and die.”

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