Gophers get hot in Florida tournament

Mark Heller

The Minnesota softball team’s nonconference season ends in Ohio next weekend. But a spring break spent in part in Akron and Youngstown doesn’t demand a suit and suntan lotion — the Gophers got some of that this weekend.
Taking in the Florida sun a week earlier than the rest of the University’s students, the young Gophers (16-12) sloshed into the Clearwater Parks and Recreation tournament having lost five of their last six.
Then something — or some team — appeared out of nowhere, methodically earning Minnesota the tournament championship with a 3-0 win over South Florida.
It was a far cry from last weekend’s Aggie Invitational in Texas.
“We didn’t like what we did in Texas and we didn’t like the losing part,” second baseman Jordanne Nygren said. “We really decided that we should probably kick it into gear this weekend. Something clicked with us and we were unstoppable. I think we like this.”
Co-coach Lisa Bernstein sure liked it. Faced with a brand new pitching staff from the team that won the Big Ten tournament last season, Minnesota rode the left arm of Angie Recknor and the right arm of Meagan Hautala. The freshmen combined for six wins and three shutouts.
As in baseball, pitching is the base of a winning team. The Gophers have won six in a row. It’s no secret why.
“Anytime you’re coming in with a pitching staff that has zero innings of experience at the college level, you don’t know what to expect,” Bernstein said. “They have played big. They let their defense do a great job behind them and let the defense get a bunch of groundball outs.”
Coming to the pitching’s aid was spots one-through-nine in the lineup. With All-Americans Steph Midthun and Shannon Beeler gone, the Gophers will probably need everyone in the lineup to contribute on a consistent basis.
Those contributions have not always been consistent this season, but they were for this tournament. Nygren accounted for all three runs against South Florida, knocking in two and scoring the third herself.
Sunday may have been “Nygren Day” for Minnesota, but each day was “somebody new day.”
Freshman Shelly Nichols hit her first collegiate home run and had a key sacrifice fly Saturday, and Angel Braden hit a game-winning single in the ninth inning against New Mexico on Friday.
“Things are starting to click, especially being so young and people learning new stances and techniques,” Nygren said. “We’ve all worked so hard it’s about time some things came together. It’s exciting.”
On Sunday, a young, largely inexperienced team showed a little grit. Down 3-0 against Seton Hall heading into the sixth inning, Minnesota scored four runs on four hits, an error, a walk and a sacrifice fly to pull out the 4-3 win.
Up 3-0 during Sunday’s second game, Recknor gave up two runs in the sixth inning to cut the lead to one, but got out of the inning and threw a perfect seventh.
Next weekend’s double-headers in Ohio will give way to the Big Ten season during spring break. But there is no break for a Gophers team facing a long season short on seasoning.
“You’d always like to have more wins under your belt, but we’re growing and this is progress with this team,” Bernstein said. “We’re very much working on this as a process and if the outcome is positive it’s even better. But we’re really paying attention to detail with a young ballclub.”

Mark Heller covers softball and welcomes comments at [email protected]