Episode 39: Gophers softball on a roll in final stretch of regular season

In this week’s episode of the “Weekly Rundown,” our staff discusses the Gophers softball team’s recent success, the team’s series against Nebraska and what to expect in the waning stretch of the season.

Nolan O'Hara and Matthew Kennedy

 

INTRO MUSIC PLAYS

NOLAN O’HARA: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of the “Weekly Rundown,” presented by the Minnesota Daily. I’m your host Nolan O’Hara. This week we’ll be discussing the Gophers softball team. At the time of recording here, the Gophers are playing this weekend, but they’re currently 22-6, and most recently, they won three of four games in a series against Nebraska. The Gophers are taking on Iowa, this weekend from Friday through Sunday. And here to discuss some of the team’s recent success and this upcoming series, I have Matt Kennedy who’s been doing some softball coverage for the Daily. Matt, it’s good to see you. How’s it going?

MATTHEW KENNEDY: It’s going good, Nolan. It’s good to see that all spring sports are back in full swing this year compared to last year. And that softball can finally have a full season.

O’HARA: For sure. Yeah, it was a disappointing end to last year with cancellation for all the spring sports for high school, college, really the whole world but it’s good to see some softball and baseball again, definitely enjoyable to watch. And the summer weather and it’s getting warmer too, which is always nice. So yeah.

KENNEDY: And it’s great because softball in 2019, as everybody knows, they went to the College World Series, and then they couldn’t go back-to-back in 2020 because of COVID. So now this presents another opportunity for those players to get back.

O’HARA: Right for sure. And there’s a lot of people remember that and trying to get back there since last year didn’t have that chance. So it’ll be fun. But to get started here, let’s talk about this Nebraska series. The Gophers were on a five-game win streak coming in. They won the first three games of the series to push it back up to eight before dropping the finale. But the series previous they swept Northwestern who was ranked No. 22 that moved them back into the rankings at No. 24. But I guess overall, could you break down I guess a little bit of these both series but specifically Nebraska, and kind of what stood out from that series for the Gophers?

KENNEDY: Yeah, against Nebraska. The first game the Gophers had a walk off win on it was kind of funny walk off win because it happened with MaKenna Partain driving home Carly Brandt for the tying run. But then, Nebraska is right fielder tours and Edwards had a throwing error and then Sara Kinch scored the winning run for the game, and Sara Kinch had a great series that we’ll talk about later, but that was a huge shootout. And then on Saturday, the Gophers pitching was just phenomenal. Autumn Pease threw the 32nd no hitter in program history. And then in the first game, or the Gophers, won 2-0 and the next game, they absolutely dominated winning 9-0 on a combined shutout from Fiser and Dueck. And then on Sunday, Nebraska finally got their bats going against Pease. And unfortunately, the Gophers lost snapping their win streak at eight. But some of those losses happen you can’t be perfect, as I was talking with MaKenna Partain a few weeks ago, so you can’t win every game. It’s a long season, but the Gophers are still ranked No. 24. And they’re in the driver’s seat to have a successful postseason, the Big Ten tournament. I know Michigan is going to be a tough out and that’s Michigan, Minnesota and Northwestern, who the Gophers recently swept, the top three teams. So that should be interesting. But the Gophers are right where they want to be going into the back half of the regular season.

O’HARA: For sure. I think last time I checked; they had moved all the way up to second in the conference. And it’ll be challenging Michigan for first there. So it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out in the final stretch of the season. But one of the things you brought up was Pease pitching that no hitter and the Gophers have had a pretty good dynamic duo from the circle in Amber Fiser and Autumn Pease. What have those two meant to this team this season? And how important have they been to the success that Gophers are having with this moving up to a second in the conference and really putting together a good product on the field? Pretty nice record at the moment.

KENNEDY: Yeah, yeah. Fiser and Pease are combined 20-6, which almost matches the Gophers record at 22-6, it just it’s probably the best one, two punch in pitching you could ask for in a Big Ten team and it’s honestly surprising seeing that Pease is 10-1, Fiser’s 10-1 and Pease has a lower ERA given Fiser’s past success in the program being named 2019 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, Pease on actually has been much more consistent and much more reliable on the mound. So it’s an interesting, just dynamic duo. And it’s always nice to have two pitchers, they’re both red hot and that you can trust going into the Big Ten tournament and coming up in a few series with Wisconsin, and Iowa and Penn State that I think the Gophers should be heavily favored, but the Michigan series they’ll have to be on their game for that.

O’HARA: For sure. I know on a recent media call I was in Amber Fiser was saying they’re gonna need two pitchers if they’re gonna make a return trip to the College World Series. So they definitely have that this year. Amber’s having her best year and Fiser being as good as ever from the circle.

KENNEDY: Yeah. And what’s interesting about Peasee is no hitters. She saw Carlos Rodon’s no-hitter for White Sox, earlier in the week, and I was talking with her this morning. And she’s like, “Yeah, I think I can do that. I can pitch a no hitter.” And then she actually did that Saturday. So yeah, it was pretty cool how Pease has grown the season from being into a really reliable ace on the mound is pretty special to watch.

O’HARA: Yeah, and it’s nice too this is really her first full season here because she was here last year as a transfer, but this is really her first full season. So it’s fun to see kind of that success culminating and now with their pitching coach as the head coach, it’s kind of fun to see all that coming together. But another thing coming together too, has been the team’s bats. they’re hit some home runs against Northwestern. They’ve been able to drive some runs here and again, and again against Nebraska, Partain and Kemmetmueller have been leading the way at batting average but DenHartog is driving in tons of RBIs. Well, yeah, guess what have you seen from that lineup? And you mentioned Kinch stepping up recently too, I guess what’s been clicking for the Gophers in the batter’s box?

KENNEDY: Yeah. Kinch had a career day Friday she had three for three with a homerun, two singles and she was the Gophers top batter in series with three home runs, so she’s been, her series against Nebraska was really good because overall in the season she was batting just at .222 batting average and was more middle of the road in the Gophers lineup so that from her this weekend is really cool to see. And, yeah, MaKenna Partain and Kemmetmueller still are two players who can just get on base and you can count on them to be run scorers or driving runs at any point in the game and DenHartog had two bombs against Nebraska. And she has also really helped this Gophers lineup along with Jensen, who is batting at a .294 clip as well.

O’HARA: For sure, yeah, it was it was interesting you mentioned Kinch, she’s a freshman, and one of the few, this is a pretty, I guess, senior heavy, veteran heavy Gophers’ team, we got a lot of returning seniors who were taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility. So it’s also fun to see some of those younger players kind of step up and make plays and show and show what the future will hold for this Gophers’ team. And the season is wrapping up real quick. We’ve alluded to it a little bit about the College World Series, but there’s still some time to go, and obviously, the Gophers are focusing on what they have left. They have Iowa this weekend from Friday through Sunday in a four-game series and then they’ll have series against Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State. What are you expecting out of this team from this homestretch here?

KENNEDY: Yeah, so as I said earlier, the Gophers should be favored against border rivals in Iowa and Wisconsin. Iowa and Wisconsin both have losing records right now. And I could see in both of those series, maybe Wisconsin taking a game or Iowa taking a game, but it should be pretty much the Gophers dominating in both those series and then the series against Michigan will be at home at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium, and that’ll be really interesting, because Michigan will be the toughest team the Gophers have played since Northwestern, maybe all season. So that could go either way. And then Penn State like Wisconsin and Iowa, I could see Penn State, maybe taking a game since the Gophers are playing on the road all the way in University Park, Pennsylvania, but the Gophers should also be favored in that.

O’HARA: For sure, yeah. Iowa’s kind of a middle of a Big Ten. I think they’re 15-13 right now. Looking at it too, Michigan will be an interesting one. And I guess that’s a good one to have that home. But yeah, kind of like you mentioned, it’ll probably be the toughest team on their schedule this year with it being a conference only schedule. And there’s not a lot of Big Ten teams really in the mix in the rankings. We’ve seen Northwestern in there, the Gophers and Michigan, but that’s about it. So those top-three teams in the Big Ten have been competitive. But outside of that it’s not a huge, it’s not really a deep conference in terms of softball, right. So it’ll be interesting to see how those series play out as the season comes to a close here. And it’ll be interesting for the Gophers too because like we mentioned a couple times now, they’re eyeing a return trip to the Women’s College World Series this year. That’s been one of the things that they didn’t get the chance to do that last year. But what do you think? Do you think they can make it there? And I guess, what do they need to do in this remaining stretch before the conference tournament, and then that to get there?

KENNEDY: Well, what they do need to do in this remaining stretch is I actually just looked at Penn State’s record, and they are at a woeful 4-19. So I think if they would lose more than one game in that series, that would be tough to get an at large bid into the tournament. But there are 64 teams in the College World Series. So I think if they’ve just been playing as well as they have all season, maybe get that spark that they had when they were playing in Evanston, from April 9th to 11th, at Northwestern, they could have a really successful end stretch of the season. And if they win the Big Ten tournament, obviously, they would get an automatic bid. But I feel like they can still get an at-large, I feel like Michigan, Minnesota and Northwestern could all realistically get at-large bids just do their level of work this season. And all of them having a really high winning percentage, and the Big Ten conference, which is a power five conference.

O’HARA: For sure, yeah, it’s kind of one of those things that the Gophers team will say that even when you’re talking to him to us, it’s kind of keep focusing on what they’re doing, not focusing on what the other teams doing, try to keep up their winning ways, which so far has been pretty successful. So if they can kind of keep playing with the same intensity they have so far this season, they should be shaping up to make a pretty good run, at least looking towards Big Ten tournament.

KENNEDY: Yeah, if Pease, Fiser and Dueck both keep dealing and keeping their ERAs, all their ERAs are under 2.00 so they can just keep up their awesome stuff on the mound and the sky’s the limit for this Gophers team.

O’HARA: For sure. And we’re looking towards this weekend here, the first step is Iowa, I guess what are some keys for the Gophers to be successful this weekend? And what kind of they need to do to make sure they win two out of four, three out of four, keep competitive here?

KENNEDY: Yeah, I think some keys to just hone in on is that Iowa’s not that big of a power hitting team. They actually only have eight combined homeruns on the season with all their top homerun hitters only having two, so I think the keys would just be too to pitch well against Loecker and Rocco on Iowa because their batting averages are really high. And I feel like if Fiser and Pease can keep those two locked down I think the Gophers will be good, and Iowa plays a lot of small ball, but I think that helps the Gophers because in some of the losses that they’ve had, they’ve lost because they played power hitting teams like Nebraska who can get the ball out of the field in a hurry.

O’HARA: For sure, yeah, they shouldn’t have trouble, they got a pretty good pitching duo here so it’ll be the fun to watch them towards the end of the stretch in this series this weekend.

KENNEDY: Right, and there isn’t Shaw on Iowa’s a pretty good pitcher, same as Doocy, but just overall I feel like the Gophers are better than Iowa in pretty much every single fashion besides Iowa’s got a little bit more pitching depth, but I don’t think that should be a problem that hasn’t been a problem really for the Gophers so far.

O’HARA: No, for sure. It’s a little different in softball you don’t have to wait whatever five days, however long they usually make them wait for pitching in baseball so they have a little more, they can pitch a couple more innings then…

KENNEDY: Right yeah, underhand throws.

O’HARA: Right. It’s, you don’t see all those Tommy John surgeries in softball, which is probably fortunate. But yeah, I guess looking back towards the season, do you have any other final thoughts or any keys for the team moving forward? And I guess any final thoughts as to how this team could make a World Series appearance this year?

KENNEDY: I think if Partain keeps hitting well at lead off, she’s been one of the best leadoff hitters not only in the Big Ten but in the country, so if she can keep getting on base with singles and doubles and then having people behind her in the batting lineup and Kemmetmueller and then DenHartog getting RBIs, I feel like they can really make a splash offensively, and then for pitching and defense, their pitching is fine. Most of their, most of the runs that come in when Fiser and Pease are pitching are defensive errors or fielder’s choices, so if they can limit some defensive problems and making the right decisions on defense, they could definitely make a College World Series for the second straight appearance.

O’HARA: For sure, yeah, not second straight year, second straight appearance and unfortunately, with everything that happened last year, but it’ll be exciting to see what they can do down this winding stretch, and I know for sure I’m looking forward to it. But yeah, thank you so much for joining, appreciate having you here to be able to talk a little softball and
appreciate it.

KENNEDY: Yeah, thanks for having me on, Nolan.

OUTRO MUSIC PLAYS

O’HARA: In other news: The Gophers volleyball team lost its match against Pitt in five sets on Sunday in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA volleyball tournament, ending the Gophers season. It will be a quick turnaround for Minnesota, as it will quickly look towards next season, slated to begin in August.

Gophers women’s basketball assistant coach Danielle O’Banion has been named the head coach of Loyola University Maryland. She had been an assistant under Whalen since the 2017-18 season and this will be her second head coaching opportunity.

The Gophers baseball team dropped all three of its games in its series last weekend against Michigan and dropped the first of a double header on Friday to Indiana. The second game was live as we’re recording. The Gophers will wrap up their series against the Hoosiers on Sunday.

That’s all for this week. Be sure to check our website mndaily.com for more coverage and tune in again next time to get the “Weekly Rundown” on all things Gopher sports. Thanks.

Note: It’s stated in the podcast that 64 teams make the College World Series; 64 teams make the softball tournament with conference champions earning automatic bids, but only eight teams from the tournament make what’s known as the College World Series.