Lineup set, team ready to begin conference play

The Gophers are coming off an 11-day break with a lineup built around speed.

Chris Lempesis

After spending the first half of the season tinkering and tweaking, Minnesota’s softball team’s offensive attack is starting to take shape.

And with the Big Ten season starting tonight, it couldn’t have happened at a better time.

The Gophers (15-13) finally have their starting lineup set and said they hope the order will provide some punch this weekend as the team takes on a pair of conference foes.

Minnesota faces Penn State (18-11) tonight and Saturday before closing out its weekend with a doubleheader with

Ohio State (16-8) on Sunday.

All games are at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium.

Co-coach Lisa Bernstein said the lineup was finalized during the course of the team’s 11-day break that ends tonight.

“We’re going to walk into Penn State with the lineup that we feel is the most offensively explosive,” Bernstein said. “Defensively, it’s sound, but we’re hoping that the offensive component is the major focus of this lineup.”

Bernstein also said the lineup will be built around speed – at least at the top.

Right fielder Stephanie Sward, currently the Big Ten’s leader in steals with 17, will lead off, and left fielder Lindsey

Erickson – “both an RBI hitter for us and a slapper, a kid with a lot of speed,” said Bernstein – follows.

The team’s top two run-producers, catcher Megan Higginbotham and Rachel Keeney, will bat third and cleanup, respectively.

The two of them have knocked in 27 of the team’s 62 runs in 2005. Higginbotham also has speed. Her 13 stolen bases put her behind only Sward in the Big Ten.

First baseman Valerie Alston, third in RBIs on the Gophers, bats fifth and pitcher/first baseman Rene Konderik and third baseman Katie Meyer will be batting in either the sixth or seventh spot.

Center fielder Stefanie Watt will be batting eighth, and designated player Chrissy Sward, Stephanie Sward’s younger sister, closes out the lineup.

This group said it hopes to make a statement against the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes after finally returning to its home field.

“It’s great,” Higginbotham said. “The fans are usually good out here. Hopefully, the day’s going to be nice and, yeah, it’s great to be home.”

And despite such a long layover, pitcher Mandy Valadez said there’s no rust on the team.

“We’re ready for Big Ten (teams),” she said. “This is what we’ve been waiting for.”

The waiting and searching are now over for the Gophers, and they said they hope some wins are their payback for their hard work.