Gophers start season with strong pitching, hitting and newcomers

Minnesota ended last season in the NCAA tournament regional round.

Gophers junior Sara Groenewegen throws a pitch at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium on Friday April 30, 2015.

Niti Gupta, Daily File Photo

Gophers junior Sara Groenewegen throws a pitch at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium on Friday April 30, 2015.

Kyle Steinberg

The Gophers softball team is hoping to build momentum on a Big
Ten Tournament-winning season when it opens action this weekend.

No. 16 Minnesota starts the year on the road in Texas — one of
five warm climate tournaments the Gophers will play in this year.

Nine players return from last year’s team, including senior Sara
Groenewegen, one of the nation’s top pitchers.

Groenewegen shined last year, particularly during the Big Ten Tournament,
where she pitched every inning, including all ten in the final against Michigan.

“[Groenewegen has] always been a competitive leader for us on the
field,” said head coach Jessica Allister. “We just need her to be herself.”

Groenewegen will look to build on a season in which she pitched
23 complete games on her way to a 31-7 record and 2.03 ERA.

She also competed for Team Canada over the summer — a commitment she
said was exhausting but worth it.

“I probably haven’t had more than a month off from softball in
three and a half years,” she said. “At the same time, I’m very privileged to
represent my country, and a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to do that.”

In addition to Groenewegen, Minnesota added Tori Finucane, a top transfer
from Missouri, and three freshmen to bolster the pitching staff.

“Our pitching staff is going to be a strength this year,”
Allister said. “It’s one of the things that when we sit down as a coaching
staff to talk, we’re really excited about.”

The Gophers lost all three outfielders from last year to
graduation. In order to fill the void, others players will have to switch
positions this season.

Maddie Houlihan was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season at
first base, but she will move to left field this year for the first time in her
career.

“Obviously, it’s a very different position for me,” Houlihan
said. “But I’m enjoying it. I’m getting better at it and I think it will be
good for us this year.”

Offensively, the Gophers look to be in good shape with the return
of three of their top four hitters from last year’s NCAA Regional-qualifying
team.

Houlihan, senior Sam Macken and junior Danielle Parlich each hit
at least .350 last year. Houlihan and Macken also put up double-digit home run
numbers.

“I like the power that we have. I like the speed that we have … we
need to have consistent, emotional approaches,” Allister said. “We have the
ability to hit at a very high level as a team.”

As always, the cold weather of Minnesota limits the number of
games the Gophers can play at home, so they will begin the season with five
straight road tournaments, followed by a number of road games.

Minnesota’s first home series is April 4 against South Dakota
State.

“I don’t think it’s tough,” Allister said. “We get to go to
beautiful places and play in beautiful stadiums against great competition.”