Gophers’ new defensive core begins to gel in time for Big Ten stretch run

Minnesota’s infield has only three errors in its last six conference games.

Chris Lempesis

Minnesota’s softball team entered Big Ten play with an infield whose members had no conference experience playing together, and it showed early on.

The Gophers’ infield struggled, committing nine errors in its first four Big Ten games together as a group.

But the foursome of first baseman Rene Konderik, second baseman Valerie Alston, shortstop Rachel Keeney and third baseman Melissa Murnane has bounced back lately.

The infield has committed only three errors in Minnesota’s last six conference games.

This improved group will be on display this weekend as the Gophers (22-20, 3-7 Big Ten) travel to take on a pair of Big Ten opponents. They play Indiana at 4 p.m. Friday and at noon Saturday before closing out their weekend with a doubleheader beginning at 11 a.m. Sunday at Purdue.

Co-coach Julie Standering said the problems in the first four games were mainly because of the infield members’ lack of familiarity with one another. She attributed the improvement to an increased comfort level among the infielders.

“The more games you get under your belt, the more experience you get, the more plays that have never happened have happened,” she said. “So actually, through some of those errors, we’ve learned a lot, and we actually left those behind and have advanced now.”

The infielders agreed with their coach’s assessment, saying the increased comfort has led to better communication.

“We’ve always been good at talking, but we’re much more strategic now,” Alston said.

Murnane said the communication has improved so much that the infielders can reach one another without words, through body language.

This was not the case early on, as the group members were not only new to playing with one another, but some of them were new to their positions.

Konderik is in her first season at first base after spending last season as a pitcher/designated player, and Alston is in her first full season at second base after previously being at first.

Alston said that even though the group was fairly inexperienced, it never panicked, despite the early troubles.

“We never really thought we were in trouble or anything,” she said. “We weren’t worried about it.”

Standering said she was also not surprised by the early Big Ten problems.

“I told them three weeks ago, they’re young, they’re inexperienced,” she said. “They need to mature and be groomed a little bit.”

Only one infield change came out of the early rough stretch. Murnane stepped in at third, replacing sophomore Katie Meyer after Minnesota’s fourth conference game.

While there haven’t been too many personnel changes, Standering said there has been an extra emphasis on fielding in practice recently, particularly on mechanics.

“What we’ve been doing is we’ve slowed things down,” she said. “We’ve played catch. We’ve moved our feet. We work on, basically, communication, fundamentals.”

The Gophers said they hope the infield’s improvement, will be only a part of the team’s improvement, as they try to add to their win total in the Hoosier state this weekend.