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 game against Colorado State, on paper, was supposed to be a routine win on Sunday for the Gophers softball team. The Rams came in 6-8.
But the Gophers had to battle all seven innings before beating Colorado State 8-5 in the Diamond Devil Invitational. The U is now 13-1, tying last year's team for the best start ever. The 2014 Gophers were 14-1 before suffering their second loss.
But back to Sunday's game. No. 9 hitter Sydney of the Gophers hit a two-run homer in the sixth to tie the score at 5-all.
Then shortstop Tyler Walker, after making a diving catch in the bottom of the sixth to end a bases-loaded threat, hit a bases-clearing single in the top of the seventh inning to put the Gophers ahead 8-5.
The Rams had taken an early 5-1 lead, scoring all of their five runs in the bottom of the second. Batting against lefty starter Nikki Anderson, the Rams opened the inning with a hit batter, a double and took a 1-0 lead on an illegal pitch. An RBI single made it 2-0. After Anderson walked a batter to put runners are first and second with two outs, she was lifted.
Hannah Evanvold, a sophomore in her first appearance this season, came in and the Rams kept the rally going. A wild pitch moved the runners up a base. A walk loaded the bases and another walk brought a run home, so it's 3-0.
Then a single brought in two more runs.
Another pitching change. This time Sara Groenewegen came in, making her second relief appearance this season. She got a strikeout to end the inning.
Groenewegen finished with 11 Ks in 5-1/3 innings. She gave up only two hits and three walks in improving to 7-1.
But this game proved again that the Gophers' pitching -- behind ace Groenewegen, the Big Ten pitcher of the year last season -- can be shaky.
Anderson, the starter, lasted only 1-2/3 innings, gave up four earned runs and three hits. Evanvold got none of the three batters she faced out.
But the No. 15 Gophers, with Groenewegen stringing zeros in the circle, got their bats going at the end.
Erica Meyer was 3-for-4 with two runs scored. Walker got the big clutch in the seventh with two outs. And Hannah Granger went 1-for-3 with two RBI; her one hit gives her a 14-game hitting streak.
The game lasted 2 hours, 47 minutes, making it the Gophers' longest this season. Although it was a pleasant 67 degrees in Tempe.
Next the Gophers play five games in the Citrus Classic in Orlando. They face Mississippi St. and James Madison on Friday, Missouri and Omaha on Saturday and Fordham next Sunday.
* The Gophers are tied with Michigan for the best record in the Big Ten at 13-1. Ohio State is 9-3; the only other conference team with only three losses is Rutgers, but Scarlet Knights have played only five games and are 2-3. Other teams all have at least five losses.
* Top three hitters in conference all Gophers: Hannah Granger, .525, Kaitlyn Richardson, .523 and Erica Meyer, .514. Meyer leads the conference in slugging percentage, 1.057. She has four homers.
* Sara Groenewegen has the best ERA, .071, and is second in wins with her 7-1 record.
Ellis Mannon has had a lot of highs in gymnastics.
The U of M senior from Indianapolis was the NCAA champion in the pommel horse last season.
And, it seems, he's only getting better. Ellis won the pommel horse at the Winter Cup Challenge at the Riviera Hotel and Casino's Royale Pavilion in Las Vegas.
What's the Winter Cup Challenge, a huge event in the sport of gymnastics. It attracts many of the top college, post-college and junior gymnasts hoping to be named to the U.S. national team someday.
Well, Mannon took a step in that direction.
He was tied for the lead in the pommel horse after the preliminaires with a scored of 15.250. Tied with Donathon Bailey of Cal-Berkeley.
On Saturday, in the finals, Mannon was even better with a score of 15.450 for a total of 30.700.
Marvin Kimble of Swiss Turners was next at 30.200 and Bailey tied for third at 30.050.
“Ellis put together his best routine of the season at the biggest meet of the year so far,” said Gophers coach Mike Burns after the preliminaries. “It’s great to see Ellis step up and perform at such a high level with a new, more difficult and complex routine.”
Here's what the Winter Cup Challenge web site says about its importance:
Performances at the 2015 Winter Cup Challenge will help determine the 15 men who will comprise the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team through the 2015 P&G Gymnastics Championships in Indianapolis Aug. 13-16.
The six members of the 2014 World Championships squad, plus the alternate, retain their spots on the national team.
The remaining eight spots will be determined based on the following criteria: the top three ranked all-around athletes who are not already on the senior national team; two based on the National Team Points System; two athletes selected by the Men’s Program Committee; and one selected by the national team coordinator.
Remember, Indianapolis is home to Mannon.
His routine in Saturday night's final is available on YouTube; it's less than a minute long, but tiring to watch as he whips his legs around continuously.
The last Gophers' athletic team to win four consecutive titles was the men's tennis team. Way back from 1992-95.
A women's team had never done it. Until Saturday.
The Gophers women's swimming and diving team accomplished that feat at the McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion in Columbus, Ohio.
Minnesota took the lead on Day 2, briefly gave it up to Indiana on Saturday, Day 4 during the final session, but prevailed with a robust 618.5 points.
The next four:
2. Indiana, 591
3. Michigan, 478.5
4. Wisconsin, 448
5. Purdue, 388
Three Gophers between them won five individual titles and were named All-Big Ten first team: Kierra Smith, 100- and 200 breastrokes, sophomore Yu Zhou, 1- and 3-meter diving and freshman Brooke Zeiger, 400 IM.
Here's a look at the 13 swimmers or divers who placed fifth or higher in at least one event:
Katy Etterman, Brainerd HS, second in 3-meter diving (333.80), All-Big Ten second team
Kiera Janzen, Cretin-Derham Hall, on third-place 800 freestyle relay
Jessica Plant, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, fourth in 200 freestyle, on third-place 800 freestyle relay and fourth-place 400 freestyle relay
Tori Simenec, from Salem, Oregon, fourth in 200 IM, on third-place 800 freestyle relay, and on fourth-place 200 and 400 medley relays and 400 freestyle relay
Devin Ste. Marie, from Whitby, Ontario, fifth in 200 butterfly
Rebecca Weiland, from Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., tied for second in 50 freestyle (22.13) with Ohio State sprinter, fourth in 100 butterfly, on third-placed 200 freestyle relay, and on on fourth-place 200 and 400 medley relays and 400 freestyle relay; All-Big Ten second team
Blake Zeiger, from Cumberland, R.I., anchored third-place 200 freestyle relay
Comments: Seven seniors filled a lot of the spots on the relays, which all finished third or fourth
Samantha Harding, from Las Cruces, N.M., fourth in 500 and 1,650 freestyles
Kierra Smith, from Kelowna, B.C., won 100 breaststroke (59.32) and 200 breaststroke (2:05.69), which was a Big Ten, meet and pool record, fifth in 200 IM, on fourth-place 200 and 400 medley relays ... She won two breaststroke event for second year in a row.
Lauren Votava, Des Peres, Mo., fourth in 100 freestyle, on third place 200 and 800 frestyle relays and on 4th place 400 freestyle relay
Comments: Smith was someone team could count on for big points in her events
Lexi Tenenbaum, Maple Grove HS, fifth in platform diving
Yu Zhou, from Beijing, won 1-meter diving (365) and, with a pool record total, 3-meter diving (411.55) events and was second in platform diving (371.80). ... Named Diver of the Championships.
Comments: Zhou a budding star on the board.
Danielle Nack, Mankato HS, second in 200 butterfly (1:56.31), on third-place 200 freestyle relay and fourth place 200 and 400 medley relays
Brooke Zieger, from Cumberland, R.I., won the 400 IM (4:03.28), a program record; third in 1,650 freestyle (16:03.94)
Comments: Lots of potential with these two.
* This was the seven conference title overall for the Gophers.
* The conference swimming and diving coaches of the year will be named after the NCAA tournament.
* The NCAA meet will be held March 19-21 in Greensboro, N.C.
* Team was ranked 14th going into Big Ten meet in College Swimming Coaches Association of America's poll, highest of any conference team
* Only events Gophers didn't have someone place in top five were the 100 and 200 backstrokes; top Gophers there were way down, 35th and 31st in preliminaries, respectively.
The Gophers will try to match and surpass last year's 8-0 start today.
Minnesota, ranked No. 12 and 13 in two major softball polls, plays UMass-Lowell (4-4) at 8:30 a.m. in Claremont, Fla. The Rivers Hawks are coming off a 2-0 loss to Missouri-Kansas City and a 9-1 loss to South Dakota State on Saturday.
Then the Gophers play maybe their toughest opponent yet, Central Florida (7-0), at 10:30 a.m.
The Knights have beaten three SEC teams in a row, South Carolina 4-1. Missouri 1-0 and Arkansas 6-1. They have shut out four teams and held three to one run. They have at least two pitchers who are on a roll.
The Gophers (7-0) obviously have talent, too.
And it all starts in the circle with sophomore righthander Sara Groenewegen. She is 4-0 with a 0.61 ERA and recently had a nine-inning stretch over three games in which she gave up no hits.
The Canadian has 40 strikeouts in 23 innings. Almost two per inning. Remember last season she led the NCAA in most strikeouts per a seven-inning game. She had walked only two, given up 10 hits and opponents are hitting .123 off her.
She also can hit a little. She is hitting .476 -- fourth on the team -- but leads the Gophers in homers with two, and it tied for the lead in total bases with 18 and RBI with 10.
Freshman second baseman Danielle Parlich is also swinging a hot bat. She is hitting .632 with 18 total bases and 10 RBI.
Hannah Granger is hitting .500 and Kaitlyn Richardson .522. Both of them are seniors.
Biggest concern for Jessica Allister's club, so far, is finding a solid No. 2 pitcher behind Groenewegen. Both freshman righthander Kylie Stober (4.85 ERA) and junior lefthander Nikki Anderson (5.04) have started games and relieved and struggled.
The last time the Gophers and Houston met on a ballfield, 33 runs were scored. The U beat the Cougars 18-15. Of course, that was March 23, 1987.
Today the two teams meet at 6:30 p.m. in Houston and the over/under for runs would be a lot less if someone was setting it.
Houston is a consensus top 10 team, ranked as high as No. 3 in the land by Baseball America. The Cougars were 48-18 last season, tying a school record for victories. And against nonconference foes, Houston was 27-5.
The Gophers are coming off a 27-24 season. They were 13-11 in the Big Ten, tying for fourth. But coach John Anderson, in his 34th season as the U of M skipper, is optimistic. As he should be, although his club might take some early lumps.
After three games in Houston, the Gophers play four games against Texas, ranked No. 10 by Baseball America.
Anderson has five regulars back, three in the infield, and two of his top three starting pitchers. Closer Dalton Sawyer is switching to starter, so that gives him three promising starters which is as many as a team needs most weekends.
Ben Meyer, a 6-6 senior righty, looks like the ace. He was 4-5 with a 2.39 ERA last season, best on the team. He started 15 games, held batters to a .228 average and struck out 67 in 98 innings.
Dalton Sawyer, a 6-5 junior lefty, comes out of the bullpen to start. He was 6-4 with a 2.62 ERA last season and six saves. He had 42 whiffs in 44.2 innings.
Neal Kunik, a 6-0 senior righty, was 2-2 with a 3.84 ERA. He held batters to a .231 average and didn't give up a single homer in 11 games, five starts, six relief appearances.
They should have a pretty good defense behind them, especially with Mike Handel back at shortstop, Tony Skjefte at third and Connor Schaefbauer at second.
In the outfield, Jordan Smith is back in left and Dan Motl in center.
Schaefbauer hit .287 last season and led the Gophers in runs with 30, hits with 56 and steals with 13 out of 15 attempts.
Skjefte led the team in RBI with 30.
Houston returns six players from its regular lineup, including two .300 hitters. But pitching was the Cougars strength and all its starters are back. The staff ERA was 2.35 last season, which ranked eighth nationally.
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