Minnesota thriving as underdog, hopes to make statement

The Gophers enter their weekend in Michigan with newfound confidence.

by Mark Heise

This weekend could tell a lot about the Minnesota softball team’s postseason chances.

As the Gophers travel to Michigan to take on both the Wolverines and Michigan State, the importance of the four games is starting to sink in.

“We really need to go out and play good softball,” coach Lisa Bernstein said. “We’re going up against two quality teams, and, at this point, every game is important for us. We’re going to need to stay focused.”

Michigan might be Minnesota’s biggest challenge this weekend, as the Gophers (20-18 overall, 2-5 Big Ten) will face the ninth-ranked Wolverines Friday at 5 p.m. and again Saturday at noon.

Michigan (37-8, 8-2) is hitting .307 as a team, .072 points higher than Minnesota. The Wolverines average a home run every game and a half, while holding opponents to under two runs per game and a .176 average.

But senior first baseman Lisa Parks said the team is confident, riding the success of the past few weeks and looking forward to the role as the underdog.

“It’s going to be tough, but I think we’ve got the advantage of being the underdog,” she said. “You’ve always got to embrace that position and maybe get the chance to creep up on teams. Everybody knows Michigan is a strong team. They might not be sure about us yet.”

The Wolverines head into the matchup riding a five-game win streak. Their last loss came April 17 against Central Michigan.

Following the series at Ann Arbor, the Gophers will head to East Lansing for a Sunday double header with the Spartans, starting at 1 p.m.

Michigan State (26-24, 2-8), while not nearly as impre ssive as Michigan defensively, has put up impressive numbers on the offensive side of the ball.

The Spartans hit .295 as a team, while averaging over five runs per game. Sophomore Kara Weigle leads the team with a .377 average and 44 runs batted in, while three more players boast averages above .300.

Michigan State has a much weaker pitching staff than the Wolverines, however, giving up four runs per game with a 3.45 team earned run average. Sophomore Megan Hair leads the team with a 3.05 ERA.

“They’ve got some good bats, there’s no doubt about that,” Bernstein said. “But I think we’ll hit their pitching, and we’ll just need to play good defense and we’ll be alright.”

One of the biggest assets for the Gophers this season has been pitching, which will need to remain strong in order for Minnesota to win.

Sophomore pitcher Briana Hassett is coming off a no-hitter Tuesday, giving the team plenty of poise in its pitching staff.

“We’re pretty confident and looking for a good weekend here,” junior Amber Nelson said. “Our pitching has been solid for us, and we took a couple of things away to work on from our last series. Now we’re just looking forward to Michigan and Michigan State.”

Going into the weekend just a half-game behind Penn State for the final seed in tournament play, these four games could make or break Minnesota’s season. Bernstein said the Gophers’ expectations wouldn’t change, however.

“As always, we’re going in expecting to win every game,” she said. “Our expectation is to go out, play hard and hopefully win some ball games.”