California trio awaiting U at regional softball tournament

Michael Dougherty

It’s going to be like Fargo vs. Fast Times at Ridgemont High, with Jerry Lundegaard’s, “Yep, sure, you betchas” vs. Jeff Spicolli’s, “Hey bud, what’s your problem?”
It’s going to be the fourth-seeded Gophers softball team against an intimidating California trio in this weekend’s NCAA Region 7 Tournament in Fresno, Calif.
Minnesota will be looking up at third-seeded California, second-seeded Cal State Northridge, and top-seeded Fresno State.
California (34-25) enters the tourney ranked 24th in the nation and will face the Matadors from Cal State, who are ranked 18th with a record of 37-17, at 7 p.m. Friday.
The No. 22 Gophers begin play against Fresno State at 9:30 p.m. Friday night. The Bulldogs boast a 45-10 record and have made the NCAA Tournament for 17 straight years — leaving Gophers head coach Lisa Bernstein-O’Brien to wonder if there will be any respect left for her 46-19 club.
“This will tell the rest of the country that the Midwest can play ball,” she said. “It’s always been so dominated by the West Coast, and people will walk in and overlook Minnesota. They’ll say, ‘What do they know? They’ve played in the cold and the wet.’ But you know what? This team is for real.”
Bernstein-O’Brien’s club, however, has to overcome a much greater thing than Pacific Coast perceptions when it faces the Bulldogs.
Fresno State is led by a roster that includes three All-Americans: pitcher/first baseman Amanda Scott, pitcher Lindsay Parker and second baseman Nina Lindenberg.
Scott is 20-3 this year and is hitting .354 with 13 home runs and 66 RBIs. Lindenberg leads the team with a .459 average and 69 RBIs, and she has belted 11 round trippers. Parker, meanwhile, has a record of 19-4 with a 1.94 ERA and 130 strikeouts.
The Bulldogs also have center fielder Laura Berg (.457 and 66 runs scored), who is the NCAA’s career hit leader with 383, and Western Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year Becky Witt, who is hitting .405 with 63 runs scored.
But the Gophers also boast some pretty good numbers, and third baseman Amber Hegland said she thinks the team is in the position to surprise some people.
“Our team is ready to go,” the senior said. “This team has got the heart and the soul and the drive to get it done. And we’ve got all the talent we need in our pitching staff, in our defense and in our hitters.”
The pitching staff is led by junior Steph Klaviter, who has a 19-11 record and an ERA of 1.69. She has been the workhorse of the staff recently, having taken the decision in nine of the last 12 games.
Junior shortstop Shannon Beeler leads the team with a .418 average, and broke the single-season team records for home runs (13) RBIs (73) and slugging percentage (.751).
Hegland is second to Beeler with a .416 average, and has 39 RBIs and 18 doubles. The duo ranks first and second on the team’s career RBI list, with Beeler at 180 and Hegland at 172.
“Shannon and Amber are the ones we want up there in RBI situations,” Bernstein-O’Brien said.
So with a team Bernstein-O’Brien said matches up well with the Bulldogs, coupled with a determination to earn respect from the West, the coach only has one thing to worry about — the home field advantage Fresno State has at Bulldog Diamond.
“They get 6,000 people and they all bleed red,” Bernstein-O’Brien said. “It’s definitely going to be a big home field advantage for them.”
Bulldogs coach Margie Wright, the second winningest active coach in the nation with 815 victories, has a 288-57 (.835) record at home.
She was also an assistant for Team USA, and helped the U.S. Olympic softball team capture the gold medal in the inaugural year of the sport.
“I feel because we stayed in the top eight all year, we certainly earned the right to host,” Wright said. “We’ve worked really hard to have it the way we’ve had it here, and I think it’s a great place for postseason.”
Wright said she thinks softball is getting bigger every year and will be a solid revenue producer for colleges across the country. In fact, her team made more than $100,000 last year for Fresno State.
Bernstein-O’Brien agreed the Bulldogs earned the right to host, but added under the right circumstances her squad will overcome the intimidating surroundings.
“All we’ve talked about all season is taking care of the circle that is the 22 of us,” Bernstein-O’Brien said. “And I don’t care if there is a million people there, if I can look into these 22 sets of eyes and see that we’re all on the same page, I would put us up against anybody.”
The Gophers will be making their fourth tournament appearance, and have an overall record of 1-6, while the other three teams have made the tournament a combined 38 times.
Fresno State has a 55-34 record in the tourney. The Bulldogs have been to the Women’s College World Series 10 times, with Wright leading them in eight of the last 11 years.