Minnesota softball is in position to clinch its first Big Ten title since 1991

The Gophers have been dominant all season.

Gophers sophomore Maddie Houlihan hits the ball against Purdue at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium on Saturday, April 30, 2017.

Image by Carter Jones

Gophers sophomore Maddie Houlihan hits the ball against Purdue at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium on Saturday, April 30, 2017.

by Kyle Steinberg

In 1991, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a new release, New Kids On The Block took the stage at the Super Bowl halftime show and the Minnesota Twins won their most recent world series.

It was also the last time a Gophers softball team won a regular-season Big Ten Championship.

That could change this weekend, when the fourth-ranked Gophers (48-3, 18-1 Big Ten) travel to University Park, Pennsylvania to take on Penn State (22-29, 8-12 Big Ten) for a chance to clinch the title on their minds.

“It’s so cool that that’s something we’re playing for this weekend,” said right fielder Maddie Houlihan. “It gives me chills.”

The Gophers have been dominant all season, losing twice to seventh-ranked Washington and once to Illinois.

While Minnesota’s pitching —as expected — has been a strength this season, perhaps a bigger factor in the Gophers’ success has been their offensive production, particularly from the heart of the order.

Kendyl Lindaman, Houlihan, MaKenna Partain and Sydney Dwyer batted in spots three through six for Minnesota to anchor a lineup that ranks third in the nation in scoring at 7.25 runs per game.

“It builds confidence seeing the success [the other three] are having,” Dwyer said.

Those four hold the top four batting averages on the team and are led by Lindaman, a freshman who has provided a fireworks show this season.

She broke the program record for most home runs in a single season with 16 and leads the team in batting average (.430) and slugging percentage (.914), while placing second in RBIs (64).

“She’s had such a great year,” Dwyer said. “It’s crazy to think about where she’s going to be next year and her junior year and senior year.”

Houlihan, last season’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year, battled back from a relatively slow start to hold a .407 batting average while tying for the team lead in doubles with 14.

Now a sophomore, she is excited to see the play of Lindaman and Partain, both candidates for Big Ten Freshman of the Year this season.

“It’s just such a testament to the work that we put in, and the work that [head coach Jessica] Allister puts us through,” Houlihan said. “She can mold you into what a Gophers softball player is … It’s awesome that freshmen can come right in and make a big impact.”

The heart of the lineup gives the Gophers confidence in their ability to score, as the four players have combined for 204 of Minnesota’s 345 RBIs this year.

That scoring ability has the Gophers in position for a title.

Since Allister took over in 2011, the program has gone from as low as ninth in the Big Ten to winning two Big Ten Tournament titles and reaching its first-ever NCAA Super Regional.

A regular season conference title would mark another milestone in the program-building process.

“Coach Allister has the unique and special ability to expect the kids to work as hard as they can every single day to make Minnesota softball great,” said associate head coach Jessica Merchant. “It’s always special to win championships…it would be a huge accomplishment [to clinch the regular season title].”