After three consecutive trips to the NCAA softball tournament, Jessica Allister’s Gophers opened this season with 34 consecutive road games.
The home portion of the schedule flew by quicker than a Sara Groenewegen fastball, starting April 9 with a dominant win over Illinois and ending last Sunday, with a thrashing of Maryland before a standing-room-only crowd at 1,000-seat Cowles Stadium.
Minnesota, which has won its past eight games by a combined score of 73-13, closes the regular season with a three-game series at Iowa, beginning Friday.
“At this time of year, there are teams that are getting better, there are teams that are getting worse, and there are teams that are staying the same,” Allister said. “The group of teams getting better is small. So if we can continue to do the drills with purpose and get better every time we play, we can separate ourselves.”
The Gophers (35-12, 16-3 Big Ten) are second in the conference race, 1½ games behind Michigan, which faces ninth-place Rutgers this weekend.
No. 2-ranked Michigan (41-4, 18-2) was last year’s NCAA runner-up to Florida, and the Wolverines are seeking their third Women’s College World Series appearance in four years. The No. 23 Gophers never have advanced that far, but they appear to be peaking.
“We can make it to Oklahoma City, and none of us have any doubts about that,” said Groenewegen, a junior and last season’s Big Ten MVP.
The Gophers likely will be No. 2 seed in next week’s Big Ten tournament at Penn State, where they’ll try to build off their recent postseason experience.
Two years ago, Minnesota beat Michigan to win the conference tournament, and then won an NCAA regional at home before losing to Oregon in the Super Regionals.
Last year, the Gophers won a program record 49 games but went one-and-done in the Big Ten tournament, falling 2-0 to 10th-seeded Iowa. Minnesota recovered to go 3-2 in the NCAA regional in Tucson, Ariz., losing an eight-inning thriller against Arizona with a trip to the Super Regionals on the line.
The Gophers had to replace two All-Big Ten infielders — Tyler Walker and Kaitlyn Richardson — but still returned a veteran-laden team.
Groenewegen (White Rock, British Columbia) has been one of the NCAA’s top players again. In Big Ten play, she is 11-1 with a 1.51 ERA in the circle and threw her third no-hitter of the season last Friday against Maryland. She is also batting .407 in the conference with seven homers.
Third baseman Sam Macken (Rochester Lourdes) is batting .391 with 11 homers, catcher Taylor Lemay (East Ridge) has a .459 on-base percentage, and first baseman Maddie Houlihan (Benilde St. Margaret’s) has 10 homers.
“We’ve got players up and down the lineup who can absolutely hit the ball out of the park and drive in runs,” Allister said.
The Gophers hope to stay hot into the postseason. Iowa is 3-17 in conference play, but Minnesota won’t be overlooking the Hawkeyes, especially after last year’s Big Ten tournament.