Big Ten play starts in Columbus for Minnesota

After a pair of games against the Buckeyes, the Gophers end with a trip to Penn State.

Mark Heise

The Minnesota softball team has no plans to repeat last season’s conference troubles.

The Gophers open up their Big Ten schedule at Ohio State at 3 p.m. today, hoping to put all thoughts of last year’s 1-19 conference record behind them.

Minnesota will play two games in Columbus, the second coming at 11 a.m. Saturday. The Gophers will finish the road trip with a doubleheader at Penn State, beginning at 9 a.m. Sunday.

“It’s a chance for redemption this year,” senior outfielder Katie Meyer said. “We’ve got a chance to bounce back from last season, and I think everyone is ready to do that. I think we’re going to come out strong and try to make that statement early, so right now our focus is to just pounce on Ohio State and set a standard.”

The Buckeyes (17-13) might be a tough team to beat, however, as they hold a five-game win streak over Minnesota.

Ohio State could be a difficult out, considering the team has three players hitting above .300, with freshman catcher Sam Marder leading the way with a .352 average, including seven homers and 25 runs batted in.

The Buckeyes’ pitching staff holds a 2.67 ERA compared to the Gophers’ 2.87, but coach Lisa Bernstein said she felt her team has the edge in the pitching department.

“I think our pitchers stack up better, so that’ll be an advantage for us,” she said. “We’re throwing the ball pretty hard right now, and the only thing they have is a little bit more experience. It should be a great matchup.”

Penn State’s 14-12 season record is comparable to Minnesota’s, but the Nittany Lions have put up some impressive wins already this season, including upsets over eighth-ranked Texas and No. 9 Michigan.

Sophomore Danielle Kinley has proven to be a tough out this season, hitting a team-high .427, while freshman Ashley Griffith is close behind, hitting .393.

The Nittany Lions are a little weaker in the circle, allowing on average 3.39 earned runs per game. The doubleheader against Penn State could turn into a slugfest unless Minnesota pitchers locate their pitches.

Pitching wasn’t a problem for the Gophers during nonconference play. Instead, it was the offense that turned out to be Minnesota’s Achilles heel.

The Gophers are hitting just .228 coming into conference play, but have seen a few encouraging signs as well.

One bright spot is senior third baseman Mandy Valadez, hitting .327 with seven extra base hits.

Bernstein said she is encouraged by the way her team is hitting the ball despite the lack of run production, and thinks that improvement is on the way.

“Throughout the course of our preseason we’ve worked on some different combinations at the plate, and I feel we’re going to put a strong lineup together,” Bernstein said. “I have 100 percent confidence in our hitters; we’re improving in a lot of areas.”