Top teams coming to town

Second-place Iowa and third-place Illinois are up next for the fifth-place Gophers.

Noah Seligman

As Jane Sage Cowles Stadium is used for the last Big Ten action of this season, Minnesota’s softball team welcomes two of the top three teams in the conference to its friendly confines.

The Gophers (28-19, 7-7) are fifth in the Big Ten, and take on second-place Iowa (33-18, 11-3) this evening and Saturday before hosting third-place Illinois (32-17, 9-5) for a double-header on Sunday.

“This is a big weekend,” Minnesota senior Hailee Nanchy said. “We need to win big games this weekend to keep going. We have to take care of business.”

To do that, Nanchy said the Gophers have focused on hitting. Minnesota has worked extensively in the batting cage and emphasized placement over power in its approach at the plate.

The Gophers also worked on defensive situations in practice to improve communication in the field.

“We’re working to get (the team) to improve,” Minnesota co-coach Lisa Bernstein said. “You have to be good in all three areas.”

Keeney cleared to play

Bernstein said that junior shortstop Rachel Keeney has been cleared to play this weekend.

Keeney has missed the last three games because of an avulsion fracture on the knuckle of her right index finger.

The Eagan, Minn., native is hitting .212 and is leading the Gophers in walks with 18. She has a fielding percentage of .963 and is tied for first in the Big Ten with a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage in conference games.

Senior citizens

The 2004 campaign marks the 30th season in Minnesota softball history.

Iowa coach Gayle Blevins is in her 17th season at the helm of the Hawkeyes’ softball program.

Illinois, by comparison, has its first group of seniors – 10 members strong – this season.

“We have some good senior leadership,” Illinois coach Terri Sullivan said. “This is the first year we’ve had seniority.”

The Illini have a 24-player roster consisting of 13 upperclassmen.

But despite being the new face in the Big Ten, Illinois is not conceding anything.

“You want to shoot for the top,” Sullivan said. “If you’re not, you don’t belong in the conference.”

Illinois is bolstered by strong pitching this season. The Illini are second in the Big Ten with a staff ERA of .94.

Consistency is the key

The Hawkeyes come to Minnesota having won four of their last five games and averaging 4.4 runs per game during that stretch.

Iowa is second in the conference in hitting with a team batting average of .275, four points lower than Michigan. The Hawkeyes have the third-lowest ERA with a mark of 1.07 and the second-best fielding percentage at .977.

That solid play in all three areas of the game is something Blevins has been trying to develop with her team.

“We’ve played well through the conference season,” she said. “For the most part we’ve had consistent play.”

Blevins said this is one of the youngest teams she has had while at Iowa. The Hawkeyes have had to put new players in new positions. But the pitching has had a steadying influence, Blevins said.

Junior Lisa Birocci is in the top three in seven statistical pitching categories in the Big Ten. She is first in innings pitched (76), strikeouts (90) and wins (10).