LAFAYETTE, La. — The pitch felt good to Minnesota’s Jennifer Johnson when she let it out of her hand, but it felt even better to Nicholls State’s Angela Dugas as it popped off her bat. The shot went deep to left field, and Gophers sophomore Amber Hegland chased after it.
Hegland ran all the way up to the outfield wall, but she ran out of room — the ball continued to carry through the sultry Southern air. Just like that, it was over.
The solo home run broke a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the seventh inning Saturday, abruptly eliminating the Gophers softball team from the NCAA South Regional at Lady Cajun Park. Minnesota lost the tournament’s opening game, 5-0, to Nebraska on Friday.
Although Dugas’ homer left the park quickly, it took a while for the play’s finality to sink in. As Nicholls State’s players flowed onto the field to celebrate, the Gophers stood in their positions, motionless. They remained still for several seconds before slowly walking toward their dugout.
Several factors made this a hard loss for the Gophers to accept. Minnesota wasted several early scoring chances, the team never reached its usual level of play and the players had to go home after truly believing they would advance to next weekend’s College World Series.
In the end Minnesota left its first NCAA appearance since 1991 with no wins, two losses and only one run scored.
“We didn’t take advantage of our opportunities,” Gophers coach Lisa Bernstein said. “When you play in May, you’ll be playing in close ballgames. You’ve got to make a play to make something happen. We weren’t able to do that when we got the chance. Before long you look up, it’s the seventh inning, they get a run and the season’s over.”
Minnesota’s most glaring mistakes occurred in the first and fourth innings. The Gophers had four hits in the first inning, but scored only one run. In the first of several baserunning mishaps during the course of the game, Nicholls State caught Shannon Beeler in a run-down between home plate and third base to end the inning.
Bernstein gave Beeler the signal to go home, but called her back after seeing the strong throw from the outfield. By then it was too late.
“She called me back, but I was already just concentrating on getting home,” Beeler said. “It took a little bit too long to compute.”
The next two baserunning mistakes occurred in the fourth inning. Hegland and Renee Sbrocco were at second and first base, respectively, with no outs, when NCU’s catcher picked Hegland off at second. Sbrocco moved to third base on a single by Wendy Logue, but Logue was thrown out trying to reach second. Jodi Halvorson then popped up to end the inning. Three hits — no runs.
“Our baserunning didn’t help us at all today,” Bernstein said. “The same mistakes we were making in February, we’re making in May. It’s very frustrating. We had a lot of opportunities to score. We ran ourselves out of those two innings. We kind of sunk our own ship.”
All this while, Johnson was pitching a gem for Minnesota. She faced the minimum of 12 batters through four innings while allowing only one hit. She allowed only one run on three hits through six innings.
But Johnson was unable to get run support from the team’s offense, as the Gophers failed to get a hit after the fourth inning. It finally cost them when Dugas ended the game with her homer off Johnson in the seventh.
“I can’t ever believe that one pitch loses the ballgame,” Bernstein said. “We lost this ballgame in the first and fourth innings. I would never want to say that one pitch lost that ballgame because I don’t want to put that on J.J.’s shoulders. We just didn’t play good ball, and it cost us.”
As would be expected, the players were very emotional after the loss. There were several tears and hugs shared between players and parents in the parking lot, as they tried to cope with the end of their season.
Despite the progress and records made by the team this season, its thoughts centered mostly on the disappointment of going home winless. They would not be coming back to Minnesota satisfied.
“We’re not the No. 4 team here,” Beeler said. “If anything we should have been the best team here. We just had a rough weekend. We didn’t put our hits together, and we made some mistakes that shouldn’t be made right now. It just didn’t go our way — and that’s the way it ended.”
Notes: Michigan and Iowa both won their regions to advance to the NCAA College World Series for the second year in a row. Indiana went 1-2 in its regional in Seattle and did not advance. The College World Series will be held from May 23-27 in Columbus, Ga., and the pairings will be announced late this morning.
Nebraska 300 000 2 — 5 7 1
Minnesota 000 000 0 — 0 4 0
Blackwood and Smith; Klaviter and Bartholmey. W – Blackwood (18-7). L – Klaviter (25-5). HR – Viola (14). T-1:46. A-549.
Minnesota 100 000 0 — 1 8 0
Nicholls State 000 010 1 — 2 4 1
Johnson and Bartholmey; Efferson and Dugas. W – Efferson (20-7). L – Johnson (12-9). HR – A. Dugas (7). T- 1:38. A-346.
GOPHERS BATTING STATISTICS
AB R H BINelson 6 1 1 0
Peters 6 0 2 0
Beeler 6 0 1 0
Hegland 6 0 2 0
Sbrocco 6 0 2 0
Logue 6 0 3 0
Halvorson 6 0 1 0
Bartholmey 4 0 0 0
Midthun 3 0 0 0
Fox 1 0 0 0