LAFAYETTE, La. — The Gophers softball team allowed two extra-base hits in its two games at the NCAA South Regional. Unfortunately for Minnesota, they sailed over the bright red planks of Lady Cajun Park’s wooden outfield fence.
Most people will remember the second home run, the one hit by Nicholls State’s Angela Dugas on Saturday that ended Minnesota’s season in the bottom of the seventh inning. But the first home run, which came in a different game and under vastly different circumstances, had nearly as crippling an effect on the Gophers.
It happened during the top of the first inning in Minnesota’s opening game against Nebraska. The Gophers had only minutes of NCAA experience under their belts before the Cornhuskers singled in their first two at-bats. The third hitter, Ali Viola, drove an outside pitch by Minnesota’s Steph Klaviter over the right-field wall to quickly make the score 3-0.
The home run’s impact varied from player to player. Klaviter put it behind her and rebounded by allowing only two more hits through the end of the sixth inning.
“I was like, forget about it — there’s a whole ballgame left,” Klaviter said. “There’s nothing you can do. It was just too good of a pitch.”
Gophers coach Lisa Bernstein took a similar approach.
“We weren’t panicked, and we weren’t pressured,” Bernstein said. “We were just trying to go out there and keep chipping away at them.”
For other Gophers it wasn’t that simple. Some of Minnesota’s players had a hard time recovering. Just as Saturday’s home run physically ended the game, Viola’s homer had catastrophic effects mentally.
“It should have an inflating response, but I think it had a deflating response today,” Gophers right fielder Renee Sbrocco said. “I think if we would have come back and gotten a hit right away, we would’ve been OK. But we didn’t, and I think that even compounded on the home run.”
Sbrocco said Minnesota’s lack of NCAA experience might have been a factor. None of the Gophers’ players had ever been in a regional tournament before this weekend.
“I don’t know if we know how to react,” Sbrocco said. “I think some of us were nervous — we were scared. That may have affected us because when that home run went out we maybe thought to ourselves, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t be here. Maybe they do own us.’ Maybe that bit of a doubt went in our heads.
“We didn’t walk the walk anymore. I think we were prepared. I think we’re one of the best teams here. But when you’re out there and that home run goes over your head … it hurt us.”
Gophers catcher Ann Bartholmey also noticed a letdown.
“We definitely approached the game with a different attitude today,” Bartholmey said. “I don’t think we had our same confidence level as we have had. I think it did get a little worse after the home run.”
It was quite a different story over in the park’s other metal-shed dugout. Nebraska’s early lead did wonders for the team’s approach to the game.
Cornhuskers pitcher Angela Blackwood limited Minnesota to four hits while throwing a complete-game shutout. She took advantage of the umpire’s generous outside strike zone and kept the Gophers off balance all day.
“The three-run lead we had gave me a nice cushion,” Blackwood said. “It built my confidence a bit to where I could throw to different spots that I maybe wouldn’t have if it was still a 0-0 game.”
Minnesota had nearly 24 hours to gear up for its game against Nicholls State, and the Gophers appeared to leave their doubts behind. They exploded for eight hits in the first four innings but were hurt by baserunning mistakes and lost, 2-1.
Dugas’ final blast brought the weekend to a full circle. It ended as it began — with a devastating home run.
“It’s not easy, to tell you the truth,” said Gophers pitcher Jennifer Johnson, who gave up the final hit. “It kind of feels like our season was over in one pitch.”