Minnesota needs sweep and help to earn postseason berth

The Gophers must win both games of their final regular season series.

by Mark Heise

It’s a win or go home situation for the Minnesota softball team this weekend.

When the Gophers host Wisconsin in the final regular season series at noon Saturday and Sunday, it will be their last opportunity to try and vault themselves into postseason play.

“We absolutely want to win these ball games,” coach Lisa Bernstein said. “We know what’s at stake. The kids are 100 percent aware of what they need to do this weekend.

“There’s a lot riding on this series,” she said.

Minnesota (23-21 overall, 3-8 Big Ten) is ranked 10th in the conference and will need a little help to jump into eighth place by series end. The Gophers will need to depend on Penn State or Michigan State being swept, combined with Minnesota’s sweep of the Badgers, to make the conference tournament.

But it’s not a lost cause.

The Nittany Lions will face conference leader Ohio State, and Michigan State takes on third-ranked Michigan.

Make no mistake, the first priority is collecting two wins over Wisconsin. If the Gophers lose even one game to the Badgers, their playoff hopes will end.

And winning a pair could be tricky for Minnesota, as the teams have split the series five of eleven times, with Wisconsin winning seven of the last ten meetings.

But sophomore second baseman Colleen Conway said the team was trying to avoid the hype.

“We’re really excited, but we’re trying to keep our emotions to a minimum and play this like any other day,” she said.

“We don’t want to put too much stress or pressure on ourselves,” Conway said. “The only difference from this game and any other is that in the back of our minds, we might be trying a little harder, because this does mean a lot.”

The Badgers (26-19, 5-11) boast six strong bats at the top of the order, combining for a .318 average, with 28 of the team’s 31 home runs and 146 runs batted in.

The bottom three prove to be a weakness. Seven different players combine to hit a paltry .161 with just 52 runs scored in 45 games.

Sophomore pitcher Katie Dalen said the key to success against the tough top half is pitch location.

“We’re not going to change anything, we’re just going to go with what’s given us success already this year,” she said. “We’re getting ahead of hitters and hitting our spots; I think we’re doing well right now.”

Offensively, the Gophers appear to have found their groove as well, pounding four homers over two games to score 14 runs Wednesday.

Senior Megan Higginbotham has been a catalyst for the offense all season long, and with improved production from the bottom of the order of late, it appears as if Minnesota might have a pivotal advantage over the Badgers.

“We love playing at home, and we love our crowd,” Bernstein said. “Another advantage is the fact that our starting 10 have all been solid contributors, with a ton of experience. It should be an exciting weekend.”