The Gophers softball team ended its best season in five years during the weekend, and its future shows promise of even greater success. But following Minnesota’s final loss Saturday at the NCAA South Regional, Coach Lisa Bernstein said the team still has plenty of room for improvement before next season.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Bernstein said. “We need to pick it up. This morning at 7 o’clock I was writing drills up that we can do to get better. We’re going to get better.”
The Gophers set eight team records this season including batting average (.329), hits (584) and runs scored (328). The team earned an NCAA regional bid for the first time since 1991. It finished second in the Big Ten regular season and conference tournament.
Next year’s team will return everyone except senior Jenny Lopez, who was limited to pinch-running this season. Minnesota should once again contend for a Big Ten title and NCAA berth. The extra year of experience may help push them into the College World Series.
But Bernstein doesn’t want her players to look too far ahead.
“We can’t expect to play like we played and get out of the regional,” Bernstein said. “I think they’re disappointed in the outcome. I’m disappointed in the outcome. We need to rethink the process that can get us the end result we want. Just getting here isn’t good enough when you want to win it.”
Softball fever high at USL
There are several characteristics at the University of Southwestern Louisiana that may seem unusual to visitors. Among the most notable is the swamp located in the middle of campus, which is the home to several live alligators.
But from a sports standpoint, the most noticeable difference is the tremendous fan interest in the school’s softball program.
The Lady Cajuns are the hottest ticket in Lafayette every spring, averaging around 800 fans per game. In comparison, Minnesota recently set its single-game record with 822 fans. The city’s daily newspaper devoted most of its first two pages in Friday’s sports section to a regional tournament preview. The fans who show up at the games are devoted, knowledgeable and rowdy.
“It’s really quite a shock for some people to see all the support a women’s softball team can get,” said Southwestern Louisiana coach Yvette Girouard. “I think it’s because the people here really believe they are part of the team. They really get involved, and we make a point of making the games as much fun as possible for them. And obviously, the product on the field doesn’t hurt.”
USL (45-8) enjoyed its fifth straight 40-win season this year, and has qualified for the College World Series three out of the last four years.
But for opposing teams, Lady Cajun Park isn’t always a fun place to play — and not just because of Southwestern Louisiana’s impressive record. The fans in the outfield bleachers and the field’s PA announcers have been known to taunt the visiting players.
When the Gophers played there in a tournament in February 1993, the fans and announcer were especially harsh on Minnesota’s outfielders.
“They picked on a personal characteristic of one of the players that she was kind of sensitive about,” said Gophers catcher Ann Bartholmey. “And I recall the announcer once saying, ‘Could somebody please get their German shepherd out of left field?'”
This past weekend the announcer was better behaved, but the fans in center field were still heckling.
“They were into every little thing we did,” said Gophers right fielder Amber Hegland.
Johnson’s arm hurting again
Gophers pitcher Jennifer Johnson will see a doctor today to evaluate her sore right arm and decide what action, if any, will be taken to get her back to full strength for her senior season.
Johnson, who had surgery on her right forearm in 1994, started experiencing pain similar to what she felt two years ago during Minnesota’s 3-2 win over Oregon State on March 22. Sometimes she could pitch through the pain, but other times her effectiveness was severely hampered. Johnson’s pitching appearances decreased and her rise ball suffered.
After her 1994 surgery, Johnson sat out the season as a redshirt to preserve a year of eligibility. She said she should be back in plenty of time for next season if a similar surgery is necessary.
“We’re going to go over everything,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to waste too much time playing around with it because I don’t have that kind of time to waste anymore.”