Softball seniors split in final Big Ten homestand

Mark Heller

What a finale.
Dana Ballard and Michelle Bennett finished their home softball careers Sunday with an impressive 9-2 win over Purdue. Their final weekend included four games crucial to Minnesota’s chances at a Big Ten tournament chance. Within that was a 16-inning game and, as co-captains, a part in the ceremony for their new stadium’s dedication.
Bennett is most likely to be remembered for her vocal leadership on the field, her stellar play at third base and her physical toughness.
Ballard’s contributions center around crunch time. In the 1999 Big Ten tournament, she hit the game-winning sacrifice fly in the seventh inning to beat Michigan the first time. Then she hit the game-winning single against the Wolverines to complete the improbable sweep at Ann Arbor and win the Big Ten tournament.
And then she hit her only home run of the season to win an NCAA game against Cal State-Northridge.
Following Sunday’s win, the demanding Ballard wanted a paradigm when asked to reminisce.
“It’s been a lot of fun with great people,” she said.
Best game: “Honestly, the one we lost to Fresno State (in the 1998 NCAA tournament). We played a great game against great players, Olympians, and we didn’t die.”
Down 2-0 against Fresno State, Shannon Beeler hit a home run in the top of the sixth to pull within one. In the seventh, the Gophers had the bases loaded with two outs, when Kate Schwartz’s line drive down the left-field line went foul by six inches. At least two and probably all three runs could have scored. She ended up flying out to center and the Gophers lost 2-1.
“(Saturday) was pretty good too. That’s all pure adrenaline. After you realize it was four hours and you got home, you’re like, ‘Maybe it wasn’t quite that fun.’ But while you’re out there, you didn’t even know,” she said.
But her biggest satisfaction comes from what she was a part of, not what she did.
“Honestly it’ll be the girls and coaches I’ve been around. We’re very, very lucky here, and I realize that. You’re taken care of for four years with an immediately family and people that have to care about you, and they do.”
Paging Tonya Harding
Let’s not diminish Angie Recknor’s weekend. She did throw 209 pitches on Saturday, and she did walk to the training room hunched over, slightly favoring her left arm, and she did spend three hours in that training room.
But let’s not forget about her battery mate, Meghan Smith.
Smith, a sophomore, is one of the best defensive catchers in the Big Ten.
Yeah, but what about 16 innings of squatting?
“Actually no, my knees have never been a problem,” she said. “We get breaks between innings.
“It’s not really squatting, it’s being so intense and long after thinking of every pitch.”
The only ice found on her after the game was, understandably, her lower back.
For parts of the season, Smith was calling the pitches. But co-coach Lisa Bernstein took that responsibility back a few weeks ago.
“The coaches switched back to try and take some pressure off me,” Smith said. “We were giving up hits and I would take it personally, feeling like it was my fault because I called the wrong pitch.”
The Gophers (31-26 overall, 4-11 Big Ten) are technically in eighth place in the conference. The top six teams in the conference go to the Big Ten tournament. This weekend’s games against Wisconsin are the last of the season. In order for Minnesota to get in, the Gophers would have to win both games, and have Purdue and Michigan State both lose twice.

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