Roman Augustoviz spends Minnesota's winters covering college hockey, specifically the Gophers, and other University of Minnesota sports. During the summer, he writes about the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx, with a dose of U sports sprinkled in. Follow him on Twitter @RomanStrib.
For 34 games, the Gophers softball team had traveled all over -- six states --- to compete.
The U was 10-0 in California, 5-0 in both Arizona and Nevada, 3-0 in Illinois, 2-1 in Nebraska and only 4-4 in Florida, where they lost three games one weekend.
All that add ups to a 29-5 record. But Friday was their home opener, and the preseason conference favorite, Michigan, was the opponent. The Wolverines were 31-5, and ranked No. 4 in the country.
The Gophers would have to be at their best to win -- and they were.
Minnesota won 9-1 in six innings. Yes, the game ended an inning early by the eight-run rule.
The No. 12 Gophers (30-5, 6-1) started as well as you could. Leadoff hitter Tyler Walker, on a hot streak for the past month, hit her team-leading 10th homer in the bottom of the first to give the U a 1-0 lead. It was her 43rd career homer, tying her for second on the all-time career homer list.
(She is tied with Shannon Beeler, 1996-99. Jordanne Nygren is first with 51 from 1999-2003.)
Walker has seven of her 10 homers in the past eight games.
After Michigan (31-6, 5-2) tied the score in the top of the third -- on junior second baseman Sierra Romero's RBI single -- the Gophers got three more runs in the bottom of the inning. The first two came home on pitcher Sara Groenewegen's single.
Sam Macken hit a solo homer in the fourth to make it 5-1. And four more runs scored in the sixth, the first on a hit batter with the bases loaded, two more on Danielle Parlich's single and the fourth on an error. That was the ball game.
Groenewegen mowed down the Wolverines. The sophomore righthander only gave up four hits, and one walk while striking out 10.
She now has 200 strikeouts this season in 134 innings.
It was the first time this season Michigan lost in a shortened game by the run rule and the first time thay had as many as 10 batters strike out.
Sophomore Megan Betsa of Michigan gave up all nine runs, only four were earned. Michigan committed three errors, the Gophers none.
Betsa gave up nine hits and walked five in 5.2 innings. She struck out eight.
This is the fifth time in coach Jessica Allister's five seasons the Gophers have reached the 30-win mark. They have won 11 games shortened by the eight-run rule.
The second game of the series is at 1 p.m. Saturday. It's also on the Big Ten Network.
The Gophers are 98-85 all-time in Cowles Stadium after compiling a 9-3 home record a year ago.
It's not who you play, it's when you play then. That's an adage in sports with a lot of merit.
And it's not necessarily good news for the Gophers softball team.
The Maroon and Gold are in Lincoln, Neb., this weekend for a three-game series against the hot Cornerhuskers.
Nebraska is only 17-12, but the Big Red has won nine of its past 10 games and all five of its Big Ten games. The Cornhuskers are the co-defending regular-season conference champions and are especially tough at home.
Minnesota won the Big Ten Conference tournament a year ago.
Game times are 5:30 p.m. Friday, 1 p.m. Saturday and noon Sunday.
The Gophers (27-4, 3-0 Big Ten) are ranked No. 12 in both major national polls, ESPN/USA Softball and USA Today/NFCA. They are coming off a sweep at Illinois.
They are 12-0 in true road games -- that's more road wins than any other Division I team. They are also on a program-record 13 game winning streak. The last loss was on March 1, to Alabama Birmingham.
But Nebraska has historically played the Gophers tough, holding a 19-11 lead in the all-time series. Under Jessica Allister as coach, the Gophers are 5-4 vs. the Huskers.
Nebraska leads the Big Ten with a .358 team batting average, the Gophers are next at .349 and have the hottest hitter. Senior shortstop Tyler Walker has raised her batting average this month from .257 to .343, and she has hit five homers in her last four games.
The Gophers are averaging 7.5 runs per game, the Cornhuskers 7.7 and in their past five games have outscored the opposition 17-1 in the first inning.
Minnesota has one of the top pitchers in the nation in sophomore righty Sara Groenewegen. She is second in the nation in strikeouts with 183 in 118 innings. Last season she led the nation with 11.6 strikeouts per seven innings. Now she's at 11 per seven innings.
So who are these athletes? You've probably heard of one or two. Probably not three. Almost certainly not all four.
Three are sophomores. One is a junior. They hail from Beijing, White Rock, British Columbia, Vadnais Heights and Stockholm.
They dive, pitch and hit, score goals and make layups and block shots.
And they are elite. Not among the best in their sport in the Big Ten but among the very best nationally.
Let's start with the most obscure, or rather least known, and work our way up.
Yu Zhou. She's a sophomore diver from Beijing, in her first year at Minnesota. That's all her bio says when you call up a Gophers swimming and diving roster.
But there's a lot to add. She won the 1- and 3-meter events at the Big Ten meet and was second in platform diving and was named Diver of the Meet.
That was a couple weeks ago. On Friday, she won the 3-meter event at the NCAA meet, one night after taking third in the 1-meter event.
Zhou was tied for seventh after the preliminary round, but charged to the top of the leaderboard.She is coached by Wenbo Chen, a China native who coached the Chinese national team from 1983-91. He has been at the U since 2009.
So that's a little on Zhou, the nation's best college diver.
Who else makes this a golden age at the U?
Sara Groenewegen does. She is the ace pitcher and a big hitter for the No. 15-rated Gophers softball team, which is 25-4.
On Friday, she hit two three-run homers and struck out eight in three innings -- before being replaced in the rout -- as the Gophers beat Illinois 14-2 in their Big Ten opener.
Last season she was the Big Ten pitcher of the year and conference freshman of the year and led the nation in strikeouts per seven innings. This year she is 16-2 with a 1.00 ERA and 175 Ks in 112 innings. She is also hitting .349 with seven homers and 22 RBI.
She was one of 50 players named to an early USA Softball watch list for college player of the year consideration.
Groenewegen is from White Rock, British Columbia.
So that's Groenewegen, a special ballplayer.
Then there is the local star, junior Hannah Brandt whose Gophers hockey team is one win away from a national title.
Brandt, a forward, is one of three finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the top player in women's college hockey. The winner will be announced today (Saturday).
There's a good chance it will her. She entered the playoffs second in the nation in goals and points and third in assists, and first with a plus-65 rating. She was the WCHA player of the year.
Brandt, of Vadnais Heights who went to Hill-Murray, scored the first goal and had two assists -- that's all -- as the Gophers beat Wisconsin 3-1 on Friday in the NCAA semifinals.
So there you have possibly the best women's hockey player in college.
And, finally, there's Amanda Zahui B. whose gotten the most publicity of the four.
On Friday, she was named one of four finalists for the Naismith Award, which goes to the best women's college basketball player.
Zahui has had quite the season. Two triple doubles. One game with 39 points and 29 rebounds, followed by a 27-27 game.
The Gophers lost to DePaul 79-72 on Friday in a first round NCAA game, but Zahui had 21 points and 22 rebounds -- an NCAA preliminary round record. It was also her 24th double-double of the season.
She's a 6-5 center from Stockholm, in Sweden.
That's a pretty amazing group. Stars, yes, but a little more than that. Players near the very top of their sport. And their best seasons could still be ahead of them.
All four were competing Friday: Zhou in Greensboro, N.C. Groenewegen in Urbana, Ill. Brandt at Ridder Arena on campus and Zahui in South Bend, Ind.
And, as usual, each stood out.
The Big Ten is showing how tough a conference it is at the NCAA wrestling meet in St. Louis, Mo.
After Day 1, three of the top four teams are from the Big Ten. And Minnesota is not in that group. The Gophers are back at No. 11 with 14 points, but still possibly dangerous. If, that is, the Gophers can stomp on some conference opponents.
Five of the seven Gophers still alive will face a conference foe in their first match Friday. Beat him and they not allow help the U's cause, they gain a little in the standings.
Here's a look at the matchups:
Championship bracket -- quarterfinals:
133: Chris Dardanes, top seed and 25-0, vs. Kevin Devoy, Drexell, eighth seed.
157: Dylan Ness, third seed and 30-2, vs. Brian Murphy, Michigan, 11th seed.
174: Logan Storley, sixth seed, vs. Michael Evans, Iowa, third seed.
197: Scott Schiller, fifth seed, vs. Kyle Snyder, Ohio State, fourth seed.
Comment: If Gophers can go 4-0 and put four in semifinals, they would start looking a lot better in team race.
Consolation -- wrestlebacks
125: Ethan Lizak vs. Josh Martinez, Air Force. Both unseeded.
141: Nick Dardanes, sixth seed, vs. Josh Dziewa, Iowa, fifth seed.
hwt.: Michael Kroells, ninth seed, vs. Brooks Black, Illinois, unseeded.
Comment: Dardanes' early loss was a big setback for Gophers. J Robinson considers him one of his five big dogs. Would help if he did some damage in wrestlebacks and placed high. Anything Lizak does is a bonus. He is a true freshman pressed into action at midseason because of injuries.
The Gophers started the season with seven games against Houston and Texas -- two nationally ranked teams in the preseason -- and went 0-7 on the road.
Since then, they've fared better, going 7-3, but they face another tough opponent this weekend in Maryland.
The Terappins were named the preseason conference favorite in a coaches' vote -- ahead of Nebraska and Illinois -- and so far have lived up to that hype.
Maryland is 14-4.
“Our bullpen is the strength of our team right now,” Maryland coach John Szefc said. “We have good hitters up and down the lineup, but the bullpen has allowed us to get back in games. They give us multiple chances to get back in the game.”
Maryland, ranked No. 23 by USA Today and as high as No. 14 by DIBaseball.com, beat Elon, N.C. 7-3 on Wednesday night for its seventh consecutive win. The Gophers lost the same night to Richmond 13-2.
The Terps are coming off their first trip to an NCAA Super Regional and have several bona fide stars.
Among them is sophomore infielder Brandon Lowe, a returning All-America pick. He hit .348 as a freshman with 42 RBI, tying for team high. Now he is hitting .412 with 28 runs scored. His 1.59 runs per game leads all Division I players.
On the mound, sophomore Mike Shawaryn had 11 wins last season while junior Kevin Mooney had 13 saves, both program records.
The Gophers expect to pitch Ben Meyer (0-2), Dalton Sawyer (3-2) and Tim Shannon (1-1), in that order, against Maryland. Games are set for 3 p.m. Friday (time moved up because of expected bad weather), 1 p.m. Saturday and noon Sunday.
A couple of resons to be optimistic about the Gophers:
* Right fielder Matt Fiedler. He is hitting .422, second in the Big Ten, and has 13 RBI and two homers. He also pitches. In four appearances, he has a win, a save and a 1.50 ERA.
* More power. The Gophers have 12 homers already -- two more than all of last season. Tony Skjefte, a third baseman, has hit three to lead the team.
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