By the time she took the mound for her 24th inning pitched in two days, Sara Groenewegen’s right arm was running on fumes. Nearly 400 pitches in the Big Ten softball tournament — 395 to be exact — tested her physical limits.
Her competitive spirit refused to cave.
Groenewegen’s pit bull performance willed the Gophers softball team to the Big Ten championship over the weekend. She pitched every inning in three victories, including a 10-inning marathon against Michigan in the championship.
“I just pitched with my heart on the field,” Groenewegen said.
Her display of individual domination was not uncommon for Gophers women’s sports this school year. Those who didn’t pay close enough attention, myself included, missed one heck of a show.
Nine Gophers women athletes in seven sports rank among the best nationally in their respective sports.
Rachel Banham set the Big Ten career women’s basketball scoring record and was named first-team All-America.
Amanda Kessel and Hannah Brandt are two of the top players in women’s hockey.
Lindsay Mable was named Big Ten Gymnast of the Year and All-America.
Daly Santana earned Big Ten Player of the Year honors in volleyball and was a first-team All-America. Her teammate Hannah Tapp also was first-team All-America.
Jess Lehman is an All-America track athlete who defended her Big Ten title in the heptathlon on Saturday.
Groenewegen was 2015 Big Ten Player of the Year and conference tournament MVP this past weekend.
Yu Zhou was named 2015 NCAA Diver of the Year. She is five-time Big Ten champion, five-time All-America.
That’s a lot of star power on one campus in one school year.
“I don’t think a lot of other schools can say that,” Banham said. “I don’t think people realize how cool that is.”
Good way to describe it. Cool.
“These women are such great athletes that it’s an honor to be named with them,” Groenewegen said. “It’s awesome for Gophers sports.”
The laundry list of challenges awaiting new athletic director Mark Coyle has been repeated so often that he probably recites them in his sleep.
Coyle’s three revenue- generating sports — football, men’s basketball, men’s hockey — require immediate attention. The department’s overall health hinges largely on improvement in those programs.
Those sports, football especially, drive the perception of a school’s athletic program, a truism that never will change. But successes by the Gophers women’s teams should not go overlooked when examining the problems that exist in the high-profile sports.
Four women’s teams won either regular-season or tournament Big Ten championships. Women’s hockey won the national title for the second consecutive year and fourth time in five years. The volleyball team advanced to the Final Four.
“I think we are very determined women who want to be the best that we can be by putting in the work,” Santana said. “We are all hard workers and play our sports with a lot of passion and determination.”
And skill. Lots and lots of skill.
Banham’s scoring outbursts made even Kobe Bryant gush. Santana’s volleyball spikes are so powerful that you worried she might break someone’s face. Groenewegen struck out 313 batters in 217 ⅔ innings this season, 29 coming in the Big Ten tournament.
That group of women, the Notable Nine, accumulated enough records and honors to fill a warehouse.
“It’s amazing and something that we will take with us for a long time,” Santana wrote in an e-mail from Puerto Rico. “Not because we were recognized individually, but because we bettered our program one way or another.”
Some of them became friends along the way. Banham, Brandt and Groenewegen are particularly close despite playing different sports.
They follow each other’s careers and attend games in support when schedules allow it. They share a mutual admiration for each other’s talent, work ethic, mental toughness and competitive fire.
“We’re trying to make a name for ourselves,” Groenewegen said. “That’s why we’ve got to work to keep getting championships so people keep hearing about it.”
They all deserve recognition for the impact they’ve made on Gophers athletics and in their respective sports nationally. As Banham said, pretty cool.
“This year is a huge statement,” Banham said. “People need to start paying attention more to some of these other sports that have incredible athletes and people that are doing some big things.”