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.
The Big Ten softball season opens Friday with all 14 teams playing.
The Gophers are at Illinois (8-16) after an impressive win Wednesday night in Berkeley. Minnesota, ranked No. 15 by USA Today/NFCA, beat No. 12 California 8-1 behind two of the team's strength, its ace pitcher and the longball.
Sophomore Sara Groenewegen threw a four-hitter and struck out 12. And the Gophers hits four homers, two came off the bat of leadoff hitter Tyler Walker, whose recent slump appears over. Hannah Granger and Paige Palkovich hit solo shots.
The Gophers have won 10 games in a row -- their longest win streak since 2008 -- are 6-0 vs. Pac-12 teams, 3-0 vs. Top 25 teams and 9-0 in true road games.
The Gophers' .351 average (stats are going into Wednesday's games, except for homers) is tops among Big Ten teams. Although No. 4-ranked Michigan is a close third at .348 and the Wolverines have an edge over the Gophers in some other statistical categories.
Granger is second in the conference with a .474 average, Katilyn Richardson is eighth at .437 and Erica Meyer (.411) and Danielle Parlich (.407) are hitting above .400, too.
Richardson is third in the Big Ten in RBI with 31, Meyer is first in doubles with 11 and Parlich first in triple with three.
In homers, the Gophers have hit 42 in 28 games, only Michigan has hit more, 52.
Michigan is also first in pitching with a 1.62 ERA, the Gophers are third at 2.18, and the Wolverines are first in fielding at .974, the Gophers are tied for third at .963.
Nationally in batting average, Minnesota ranks 12th (.351) and Nebraska is 16th (.348). Michigan checks in at No. 9 with 1.64 ERA. The Wolverines rank 16th in scoring (7.5 runs per game), while Minnesota is 17th (7.3)
After playing at Illinois this weekend, the Gophers are at Nebraska (12-12) the next weekend and then open their home season with a big series against Michigan April 3-5.
The Wolverines play at Ohio State and host Iowa before facing the Gophers.
The Gophers went to the Citrus Classic in Orlando to play five softball games. They arrived ranked No. 11 in one major poll, No. 13 in another.
And the tournament started well for them on Friday. Sophomore righthander Sara Groenewegen pitched a one-hitter and struck out 14, tying her career high, as the Gophers beat a strong Mississippi State team 5-0 in the first game.
That win gave Minnesota a 14-1 record -- matching last year's start, which was the best in program history.
Then the Gophers hit a wall, or so it seems, losing three games in a row in different ways.
In their second game, the Gophers lost to James Madison 8-2. Freshman Kylie Stober started for Minnesota and got pounded. She gave up six hits, two walks and four runs, all earned in 1-1/3 innings. Junior Nikki Anderson relieved her and, in 4-2/3 innings, was also pretty hittable. She allowed 12 hits, a walked one, hit a batter, and gave up four runs, two earned.
With the win, James Madison improved to 6-4.
After two games were rained out on Saturday, the Gophers played Fordham on Sunday morning. Anderson started and it was bad. The first eight hitters got on base before Anderson was relieved without getting an out.
It was 9-0 by the time the inning ending. Final score: Fordham 10, Gophers 5. There was one positive from that game. Stober pitched six innings in relief and gave up one run, unearned.
With the win, Fordham, which had 13 hits, five for extra bases, improved to 9-7.
On Sunday, Gophers coach Jessica Allister moved her slumping leading hitter, Tyler Walker, who went 0-for-8 on Friday, to eighth in the batting order and moved Erica Meyer to the leadoff spot. It didn't help much. Meyer went 0x3, Walker, one of the team's top hitters for three seasons, was 1x4.
Alabama Birmingham beat the Gophers and Groenewegen 1-0 in the final game in Florida. Groenewegn gave up only three hits, but the Chargers scored an unearned run in the sixth on a double.
Winning pitcher Cara Gooden was only the third pitcher to shut out the Gophers since the start of the 2014 season.
Meyer and Walker in their new spots in the other were each 0x3. Danielle Parlich was 2x3 and three other players had one hit, all singles. So not much offense.
With the loss, Groenewegen is 8-2 this season, 22-5 in her career.
Next the Gophers will play in the Louisville Slugger Classic, which must have had trouble getting teams because the U will face Stanford, the host team, three times. Once every day, starting Friday. The Gophers will also have a second game on Saturday, versus Santa Clara.
The Cardinal is 12-10, and one of the losses was to Northwestern 12-7. Santa Clara is 5-14.
The Gophers will need to get their bats going, especially Walker's, and find a second reliable starter behind Groenewegen. Walker was first team All-Big Ten last season and hit 382. She's hitting .267 this season.
Sophomore Luca Wieland is in the Gophers' record books now.
Not only did he win a title in the Big Ten Indoor Championships on Friday and Saturday. He set the school record in the seven-event heptathlon with a score of 5,787 points.
The previous record of 5,769 was set on March 1, 1998 by Benjamin Jensen. That's 17 years ago.
"Obviously, we had two remarkable performances from Luca and Mitch," Gophers track and field director Steve Plasencia said.
Mitch Heschel won the 600-meter run. Those 20 points from those two firsts helped Minnesota place third, up from sixth place a year ago.
This article dwells on Wieland because he seems to have come out of nowhere to set a program record.
His bio says his home is Berlin and he went to the Gym Rotenbuhl Saarbruken. For career highlights, it lists two. Won the long jump (23-9 1/2) in Northwest Open and won the 60-meter hurdles (8.26) seconds in a dual meet with Wisconsin. That's all.
Outdoors last spring, he was 13th in the decathlon at the Drake Relay on April 24 with a total of 6.120. Not eye-catching.
Nor was his 11th in the 2014 Big Ten Indoor Championships with 4,918 points. But, a year later, in a field of 15 this past weekend, he blew that total away. Here's how:
First in 60 hurdles, 8.23 seconds, 925 points -- most in any event. ... He was 11th in 8.75 as a freshman, so about half a second drop..
First in shot put, 46-4 1/2, 755 points. ... Last year he was 12th in 11.86 meters, that's just under 39 feet, so a gain of more than 6 feet.
Second in high jump, 6-9 3/4, 878 points. ... Last year he was 14th in 1.88 meters, that's about 6-2. Huge improvement. Moved up the most spots in this event, 12.
Fourth in 60, 7.08, 854 points. ...Last year he was 11th in 8.75. Another huge drop, more than 1.5 seconds in a short race.
Fourth in long jump, 22-11, 659 points. ... Last year he was sixth in 6.93 meters, about 22-9. Slightly better.
Fifth in pole vault 15-1, 790 points. ... Last year he was sixth in 4.50 meters, about 14-9. Slightly better. Moved up the fewest spots in this event, one.
Eighth in 1,000, 2:48.99, 776 points. ... He was 15th in 3:30.43. Big drop of more than 40 seconds.
So in all seven events, he was better than in 2014. In several, dramatically so.
The 2015 heptatlon came down to three athletes. Wieland, sophomore Tim Erhhardt of Michigan State and junior Stephen Keller of Indiana.
Ehrhardt finished second with 5,741 points -- only 46 behind Wieland, Keller was third with 5,706. The fourth place heptathlete was way back of those three, at 5,542.
John Simons and Zach Siegmeier carried the Gophers to a sixth place finish in the Big Ten men's indoor track and field championships a year ago.
Simons won the mile and finished second in the 3,000. Siegmeier won the pole vault. Both were seniors.
So, too, was Jon Lehman who placed second in the weight throw.
The Gophers will be back in Geneva, Ohio, for the conference indoor meet on Friday and Saturday. And it's hard to see how they can make up for the points they lost.
They don't have anyone seeded first in any of the individual events and only one second seed. Of course, there could be surprises. Someone could have a great day.
Here's a look at some Gophers to watch:
Sophomore Mitch Hechsel is the second second seed in the 600. His time is 1:17.57. And right behind him is teammate Nate Roese, the third seed with a time of 1:17.68. Roese was sixth in this race a year ago. The top seed is Penn State's Brannon Kidder (1:16.98).
Rashawn Fountain, another Gopher, is the fifth seeed (1:18.07). This could be the Gophers' best event.
In the mile, senior Blayne Dulian is the top seed in the third heet and the third seed overall with a time of 4:03.28. He is about a second slower than a runner from Illinois and one from Penn State.
Senior Justin Barber is the fifth seed in the weight throw whle junior Luke Johnson is the fifth in the shop put.
Beyond those four, the highest have a handful of athletes seeded fifth through eight.
The 60-yard dash could be interesting. Berkley Edwards, a Gophers running back and former prep spring champion in Michigan, is entered. But he has the slowest seed time. Freshman Brad Neumann has the best, at 6.81, but that's only eighth. Neumann is the seventh seed in the 200.
Edwards' seed time if 6.92. In between them is Gemechu Godi at 6.87. Improving just a little in that race, can move a runner way up.
Both Neumann and Edwards are in Heat 1.
Another interesting Gophers is junior Goaner Deng. He was third in the 800 a year ago. He is in the 800 again, but his seed time of 1:51.71 is more than a second behind teammate Bradley Johnson, seeded seventh at 1:50.65.
Junior Adam Zutz is seeded sixth in the 5,000, freshman Ryan Lockard seventh in the high jump, and junior Aaron Bartnik is seeded eighth in the 3,000.
Four individual champions return in track, three in the field events.
Michigan, the four-time defending Big Ten champion, won the first two events on Wednesday in the conference meet.
Already seems like the other nine teams may be battling for second, held for now by Ohio State with 64 points. Michigan is in first with 80.
The Gophers are tied for third with Indiana. Both have 58 points. A year ago, when the Gophers finished fourth, they were in sixth place after Day 1.
But Wednesday, the Maroon and Gold got off to a good start. The team's 200 medley relay, which was seeded last, finished fourth in 1 minute, 25.71 seconds, chopping nearly five seconds off its time.
The swimmer were Daryl Turner, Conner McHugh, PaulFair and Ian Gordon. Turner is the lone returnee from last year's relay which place fifth.
In the 800 freestyle rleay, the Gophers foursome of Michael Nunan, Jakub Maly, Ben Bravence and Logan Redondo finished fifth in 6:25.03. Aside from Nunan, the others all swam on that relay a year ago, when its time (6:26.19) was more than a second slower and it placed sixth.
Thursday evening, there are five finals: 500 freestyle, 200 IM, 50 freestyle, 1-meter diving and 400 medley relay.
The Gophers will have a better idea where they stand this year after those events. They have some threats to place high in several of those events: Maly in the 200 IM, Turner in the 50 freestyle, and Manny Pollard and Matt Barnard in 1-meter diving.
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