U heads to UW with tourney bid already clinched

by Noah Seligman

The regular season comes to a close this weekend for Minnesota’s softball team as the Gophers play two games at Wisconsin.

Minnesota (32-21, 9-9 Big Ten) is fifth in the conference entering play, but could finish anywhere from fourth place to seventh place depending on how things shake out.

“These are important games for us,” Minnesota co-coach Lisa Bernstein said. “Our main objective is to win two ballgames. It will put us in good position for the Big Ten tourney and with the (NCAA) regional committee.”

The conference tournament will be held May 13-15 at Ann Arbor, Mich. The Wolverines clinched the regular-season title.

The Gophers lost 1-0 to Illinois last year in the first round of the conference tournament before being eliminated by Michigan 3-2 in eight innings.

This year there is a new format to the Big Ten tournament.

The top eight teams in the conference will compete in a single-elimination tournament. Previously, the six teams played a double-elimination tournament.

Bernstein said that expanding the tournament will give the Big Ten a better chance of having more teams selected for the NCAA Tournament.

The Big Ten tournament champion will receive an automatic bid as is the case with all conferences that have postseason tournaments.

The Pac-10 does not have a conference tournament, so the regular-season champion (Arizona) will receive an automatic bid.

On May 16 the bids for the NCAA softball championships will be announced. The Gophers are hoping to make their third-straight tournament appearance.

“We’ll definitely have a good shot at it,” junior Stephanie Sward said about Minnesota’s chances. “We’ll make it tough on any team we play.”

But before postseason aspirations can take hold, Minnesota said it knows it has some unfinished business in the conference regular season.

“We don’t look ahead to other teams,” sophomore Valerie Alston said. “Every team in the Big Ten is a good team.”

Get it started

The Gophers have struggled all season to gain the early advantage. Minnesota has been outscored 11-2 in the first inning of conference games.

The Gophers have scored in the first inning once in Big Ten play, posting their only two first-inning runs against Purdue in a 2-0 victory April 16.

Protecting a lead late in ballgames has proved easier for Minnesota.

The Gophers are 24-0 this season when leading after six innings. They have won 118 consecutive games when leading after six frames.

Down and almost out

Wisconsin (27-27, 5-13) has been eliminated from the Big Ten tournament after losing its last seven games.

Wisconsin coach Karen Gallagher said her team has faltered during the last three weeks of conference play.

“We’re all disappointed,” she said. “We had higher expectations for this year.”

But the 2004 campaign is not entirely a wash. To be considered for an NCAA bid teams must finish with a winning record.

If the Badgers sweep the Gophers they can move above the .500 mark for the season and be considered for a postseason bid.

Gallagher said her young team is still working hard and looking to end the regular season on a positive note.

“The talent’s there,” she said. “We just have to put it together.”

The Badgers have the third-lowest batting average in the Big Ten, hitting .244. Wisconsin also has the second-highest conference ERA, allowing an average of 2.21 earned runs per game.