Gophers head to California for tourney featuring top-notch competition

Minnesota faces No. 8 Stanford on Sunday. The Cardinals are 14-2 this year.

by Mark Heise

The Minnesota softball team has already made strides toward improving upon a dismal 2006 season and will try to keep it going this weekend at the Worth Invitational.

The Gophers (7-3 overall) head into Fullerton, Calif., to open the five-game weekend with a pair of games today at 3:30 p.m. and 5:45 p.m. against San Diego State and Cal State Fullerton, respectively.

Minnesota then plays Oklahoma State at 10 a.m. Saturday, before facing off against No. 13 Oregon State at 3:30 p.m. The Gophers finish the tournament with their biggest challenge, taking on No. 8 Stanford in a stacked nonconference weekend.

“I’m so excited to play this week, and I think it will be a great test for us,” coach Lisa Bernstein said. “We’re going against a lot of teams with College World Series experience. Having these kids in a position to play the nation’s best is a great start for us.”

With an improved lineup featuring legitimate power threats, the Gophers have already shown they can compete against some tough teams. Last weekend they were leading 5-1 against No. 14 Oklahoma before falling victim to a late rally and losing 6-5.

With four everyday players hitting at or above .300, and four players combining for eight home runs in 10 games, Minnesota appears to have fixed its offensive troubles from last season.

“Our hitting is doing pretty well,” junior outfielder Casey Wheeler said. “We’ve got a lot of great hitters and they’re getting the job done for us. We’re finding ways to score one way or another.”

The Gophers might find it a little tougher to score runs in their opening game, as San Diego State (8-6) boasts a team ERA of 1.12. Junior pitcher Christina Ross has an ERA of 0.88 in three starts. However, if Minnesota can put the ball in play consistently, they could be in good shape, as the Aztecs have committed 30 errors over 14 games.

Cal State Fullerton (9-7 overall) will be another tough game as the Titans have allowed just 36 runs in 16 games. They’ve held opponents to a .174 batting average and have shutout six teams so far this season. However, the host of the tournament didn’t have much luck in their only home game this season, losing 8-0 to Tennessee.

Minnesota could get a break heading into day two. Oklahoma State is the only opponent the Gophers will face that gives up more than two earned runs per game, as its pitching staff has struggled early on this season.

The Cowgirls have given up well over four runs per game and struggle offensively as well, with a .245 team batting average. Surprisingly, Oklahoma State has still found ways to win, coming into the tourney with a 10-8 record overall.

Oregon State (8-5) will cause some problems with its offense, as its 10 home runs and .280 team average shows the Beavers are capable of making pitchers pay for leaving pitches out over the plate.

They combine their hitting with a pitching staff that holds teams to just over one base runner per inning.

The toughest team Minnesota will face should be Stanford on Sunday. The Cardinal (14-2 overall) have a solid lineup from top to bottom and is hitting an impressive .331 as a team.

Stanford won’t be easy to hit against either as sophomore Missy Penna has a 10-1 record with a 0.82 ERA this season.

But Gophers senior outfielder Katie Meyer said she is looking forward to the challenge.

“We know we can hack it with some of the best teams in the country,” she said. “We just need to come out and play our best ball. We have to find ways to string together hits and put up runs and that’s something I think we can do.”

Minnesota’s pitching will have to improve as well if the Gophers are to be successful. Minnesota pitchers have struggled to get the first batter out, allowing a .349 on-base percentage to the leadoff hitter, which has led to rallies for opponents.

But Bernstein and her team seemed confident to put up a good showing despite a few shortcomings.

“We have to pitch well and hit our spots,” Bernstein said. “And we have to execute offensively. Every part of our game has to be top notch, but we’re excited and ready for this.”