Softball gets another shot at nemesis

Michael Dougherty

She’s baaack.
Once again, the 23rd-ranked Gophers softball team must face Public Enemy No. 1, Michigan pitcher Sara Griffin.
Minnesota (45-17, 14-9 in the Big Ten) travels to Ann Arbor, Mich., for the Big Ten softball tournament on Friday and Saturday, and Michigan coach Carol Hutchins has named Griffin her starter.
The fourth-seeded Gophers face the top-seeded Wolverines in the second game of the tournament Friday, which will follow the conclusion of Northwestern and Iowa’s 11 a.m. tilt.
Griffin, one of the top pitchers in the country, has a 28-0 record this year with a 0.93 ERA, and has 99 wins in her career.
With a win against the Gophers on Friday, Griffin would become only the 15th player in NCAA softball history to reach the century mark.
And considering the success Griffin has had against Minnesota in the past, that 100th win might come easier than the Gophers would like.
Griffin has a 10-0 career record against Minnesota, including three wins in a series sweep at the Bierman Softball Complex in early April. She also threw a no-hitter against the Gophers in 1996.
But Gophers associate coach Julie Standering said she thinks the team can finally beat Griffin.
“We’ve seen her,” she said. “She doesn’t throw the ball hard, she just pinpoints with good control.”
Gophers head coach Lisa Bernstein-O’Brien said she agrees with Standering, adding, “Bring her on, bring her on.”
Yet when asked what it will take for her team to hit Griffin’s precision pitching, Bernstein-O’Brien admitted she is the last person to ask.
“Sara is fantastic,” she said. “We’ve never beaten her. She changes speeds, and she’s got an attitude on that mound that we try to teach to the young women on our team.”
Gophers third baseman Amber Hegland, who finished second in the Big Ten in hitting with a .425 average behind Michigan’s Traci Conrand (.435) has had the most experience facing Griffin, as well as the most success of anyone on the team.
She was 4-for-5 with four walks in the April series, but she admits it hasn’t always been that way.
“I did pretty good against her this year,” Hegland said. “But my freshman year when we went to the Big Ten tournament we played (Michigan) twice and lost both games, and in both games Sara Griffin struck me out for the last out of the game.”
Led by shortstop Shannon Beeler’s 80 hits, Minnesota has the top four players on the conference hit list.
Second baseman Laura Peters has 79, Hegland has 77 and center fielder Steph Midthun has 75.
But in comparison to Hegland, who is 8-for-25 lifetime against Griffin, the other top Gophers hitters have not fared nearly as well.
Beeler, who finished fourth in the Big Ten this season in hitting with a .419 average, is only 4-for-16 vs. Griffin. Midthun and second Peters have gone 3-for-19 and 2-for-19, respectively.
In addition to her pitching, Griffin is a great weapon at the plate for the Wolverines, boasting a .373 average this season with 49 RBIs.
But Hutchins said Griffin is not the only strength on the team.
“Yeah, we’ve had some success this year,” she said. “But it hasn’t been a one person or a two person show. It has been a complete team effort.”
Nonetheless, if Minnesota can hit Griffin around the park, its main concern will be answered.
“It’s been kind of a little duel between her and I,” Hegland said. “I told myself I was always going to get the best of her.”
Hegland said she is positive Griffin will never strike her out to end a game again. She also said she is sure of one other thing.
“There is not a chance she is going to get number 100 against us,” Hegland said.