Nine-year-old Sara Groenewegen’s answer to her diabetes diagnosis was to continue competing in all five of her sports. When her teenage dreams of playing for the University of Washington were dashed, she trucked east and became a softball star for Minnesota. Between her perfect game, a grand slam and a walk-off liner before a sold-out crowd, the junior electrified the Gophers this spring.
“She’s one of those kids you could never tell you can’t do something,” her father, Arnie, said.
But even by Groenewegen’s standards, last weekend’s Big Ten tournament bordered on the surreal.
She tossed a one-hit shutout to defeat Illinois. She hit a three-run homer and threw another complete game to beat Northwestern. Then, she pitched all 10 innings, Jack Morris-style, as the Gophers upset No. 2 Michigan for the championship.
Her two-day tournament totals: 24 innings pitched, six earned runs, 29 strikeouts — and 395 pitches.
“I honestly had no idea,” Groenewegen said of throwing 278 pitches on Saturday alone. “I like to take it one inning at a time. I would like to say I could have gone another game. But I don’t know. No one really knows.”
And who’d dare set limits for Groenewegen now?
Making their fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, the unseeded Gophers are headed into Friday’s first-round game against North Dakota State in Seattle, ultimately aiming for the Women’s College World Series. To get there, they must get past No. 11 seed Washington in the four-team, double-elimination regional. Next weekend would bring a best-of-three Super Regional, likely at No. 6 Alabama.
“We have to win the NDSU game first,” Groenewegen said. “We have to take it one game at a time, especially in the postseason. But we know we can beat anybody in the country.”
Groenewegen will have about 30 friends and family members in Seattle, which is about 115 miles from her hometown of White Rock, British Columbia.
She crossed the border to play youth softball for the Northwest Sidewinders, an elite travel squad based about 45 minutes north of Washington’s campus.
“She didn’t even get a call from Washington, and that was her dream school,” said Groenewegen’s mother, Reesa. “Minnesota kept pursuing her. She knew it was far away, but she knew she could make a difference, and she loved the coaches.”
Groenewegen burst onto the scene as a freshman two years ago, helping lead the Gophers to the Big Ten tournament title and the program’s first berth in the Super Regionals.
As fate would have it, the Gophers opened Groenewegen’s sophomore season against Washington. She tossed a four-hitter as Minnesota rolled to an 8-0 win. Her last name is pronounced Groan-a-wagon, as the Huskies probably realized that day.
Team USA had a similar feeling last July, when Groenewegen tossed eight innings in a 4-2 victory over the Americans that gave Team Canada its first softball gold medal in the Pan Am Games since 1983.
But when asked for her favorite “Sara G Moment,” Gophers coach Jess Allister doesn’t cite those performances, or the perfect game against Florida Atlantic this March, or the April 23 win over Nebraska, in which Groenewegen had a grand slam and a walk-off single.
“Your favorite moments are when things are hard, and you continue to grind through it,” Allister said. “It’s not just her performance, it’s her character.
“Like last year, when she came back out against Arizona [in the NCAA tournament], after having a bad day the day before, and was a completely different pitcher. She just handed it to them.”
The Gophers had to defeat No. 12-seeded Arizona twice in Tucson, Ariz., to win the regional. Groenewegen made it possible with a complete game 5-2 win, but the Gophers followed that by losing an eight-inning thriller.
This year, Groenewegen is 30-5 with a 1.87 ERA and 313 strikeouts. She doesn’t just overpower hitters with her 65-miles per hour fastball. She throws a screwball that tails away from lefthanders and a changeup that tantalizes hitters, before diving to the dirt.
Senior catcher Taylor LeMay, who smothers those changeups, said her favorite “Sara G moments” have come in the bullpen, working together in preparation.
“When she goes out to the circle, she just commands the field,” LeMay said. “There’s like a calm because she’s put so much work and so much time in, and she’s so dedicated to her sport.”
Groenewegen also bats cleanup for the Gophers, with a .486 on-base percentage, 11 home runs and 40 RBI.
USA Softball named her a Top 10 finalist for its Collegiate Player of the Year Award. The only other player on that list who combines elite pitching and hitting statistics is James Madison’s Megan Good. Jennie Finch and Lisa Fernandez are among softball’s all-time best at combining pitching with hitting, but two-way standouts have become increasingly rare.
“I’ve never known anything else,” Groenewegen said. “I grew up hitting and was actually a shortstop up until I was 16 or 17. So I think it’s just normal for me.”
So is playing with Type 1 diabetes. Groenewegen’s older sister, Marina, paved the way for the family, overcoming the same disease to play college softball at Southern Idaho and Bradley.
The younger Groenewegen wears a computerized insulin pump during games to help regulate her blood sugar level. She’s had fans with diabetes approach her to say they pull for her. “I think that is so cool,” she said.
Last weekend in State College, Pa., the fiery Groenewegen looked like she wasn’t going to let anything keep the Gophers from another Big Ten title. She kept her concentration through two one-hour rain delays in Saturday’s semifinal win against Northwestern. Throw in the 10-inning championship game, and Allister estimates the Gophers were at the ballpark for 13 hours that day.
Groenewegen threw every single Minnesota pitch.
“I wasn’t [feeling] the greatest, but there’s so much adrenaline pumping through your body in a championship game,” she said. “So I just didn’t focus on that at all.”
Groenewegen tapered her workouts slightly this week to recharge for the NCAA tournament. She said she’s ready to throw 24 or more innings again this weekend, if necessary.
“Yeah, I’m going to do everything I can,” she said.
Opponents in Seattle this weekend should consider that a fair warning.