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.
Illinois and Nebraska finished 1-2 in the Big Ten women's indoor track and field meet a year ago, separated by three points, 115 to 112. It was the closest battle for the indoor title since 2002.
The Gophers were a distant seventh with 56 points.
The Maroon and Gold isn't considered a title treat this year either but could win several individual titles and maybe a relay or two.
Last year Illinois took first in five events and second in two others. Penn State and Purdue are the only Big Ten teams in the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches national team computer ratings. The Nittany Lions are No. 11, the Boilermakers No. 17.
Alena Brooks of the Gophers has the top seed times in the 600- and 800-meter runs, 1:28.57 and 2:04.90. ... She was fifth in the 600 last year.
Molly Kayfes is the second seed in the 5,000 (16:19.12), Liz Berkholz the fourth (16:31.86) and Laura Docherty the seventh. ... Docherty and Kayfes took second and third in the 5,000 last year, respectively.
Jess Heraut has the third best total in the indoor pentathlon (4,008), Megan Geyen is the fifth seed in the 400 (54.41) and Katie Murgic is the sixth seed in the pole vault (13-2 1/4).
The Gophers' distance medley is seeded second, the 4x400 relay third. The 4x400 took fourth a year ago -- 22 hundreths of a second off the school record -- and three of those runners are members of the relay again: Geyen, Te 'Shon Adderly and Brooks. The new member is Titania Markland. They set a new school record this year of 3:38.10 in the Bill Bergen Invitational in Ames, Iowa.
Back on May 19, 2010, then-AD Joel Maturi, so often criticized when he was in that position, did something right.
He let softball co-coaches Lisa Bernstein and Julie Standering go. Under them the Gophers had fallen on hard times.
The 2010 team was 16-37 overall and a dismal 2-17 in the Big Ten. He said there would be a national search for their replacement. Bernstein had coached the team since 1992 and Standering, an assistant, was promoted to co-head coach in 1997.
It seems Gophers officials hired the right person to succeed the duo.
Jessica Allister became the sixth coach in program history -- Bernstein and Standering were counted as two -- in 2011. She was an Oregon assistant at the time and, before that, an All-America catcher at Stanford.
She has led the Gophers to three solid 30-win seasons, and Minnesota might have its best team ever this season.
Throught 13 games, Allister's team is 12-1, that's the program's best start ever. The loss? That was an ugly 15-2 blowout in six innings two weekends ago. It came to unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Florida, 17-0.
But this weekend, the Gophers get another shot at an elite team. They play in Louisville Slugger Classic in Tempe, Ariz. And their fifth opponent there on Sunday is No. 3-ranked Arizona State (17-0).
So the Gophers will have another shot to make noise in the polls.
They also play three other teams that could be a challenge. Here is the lineup:
Friday: Detroit (2-7) and South Carolina (13-2)
Saturday: Ball State (7-2) and Florida International (12-4)
Sunday: Arizona State.
The Gophers are 10-3 all-time against their first four opponents, 3-10 against the Sun Devils.
Here is the Gophers' record in Allister's four season:
2011 31-24 9-11
2012 31-22 10-14
2013 36-19 14-6 ... third in Big Ten, advanced to NCAA regional for first time since 2003
2014 12-1 ---- ... best nonconference mark in Big Ten
So what makes the 2014 Gophers tick?
1. They have an ace, Sara Moulton. The senior has or soon will have nearly every pitching record in program history. She recently went over 1,000 in career strikeouts. Moulton is 8-1 with a 0.92 ERA and seven shutouts this season. In 53.1 innings, she has 76 Ks, more than any other pitcher in the league.
She has 93 career wins, 98 complete games and 42 shutouts -- all program records -- and has five no-hitters, including one this season which ties another Gophers career record.
The Gophers lead Big Ten teams in strikeouts with 119 as a team and are fourth in ERA at 1.96.
2. These Gophers can hit, too, especially the batters at the top of the order. Leadoff hitter Tyler Walker, the shortstop, is hittting .439 with two doubles, three triples and a homer. She has 12 RBI and her 29 total bases put her fifth in the conference. No. 3 hitter Kaitlyn Richardson is hitting .417 with four doubles, two homers and a team-high 14 RBI. Cleanup hitter Sara Groenewegen, also the Gophers' No. 2 pitcher as a freshman, is hitting .325 with four homers and 10 RBI.
The Gophers are fifth in the conference with a .305 average and have the most homers, 14.
3. Minnesota can field. Its fielding percentage is .971, third in the Big Ten.
The Gophers have received NCAA bids only eight times: 1988, '91, '96, '98, '99, '02, '03 and '11. Their record in NCAA tournament play is a modest 8-16.
They have won Big Ten regular-season titles only three times: They were co-champions in 1986 and won outright titles in 1988 and '91. So Minnesota's golden era was about 25 years ago.
The Gophers' only Big Ten tournament title came in 1999.
In the USA Today softball rankings this week, the Gophers are No. 19, behind only two Big Ten teams, No. 6 Michigan and No.16 Nebraska.
Rachel Banham of the Gophers is one of 30 players up for the Naismith Trophy. The junior point guard from Lakeville has some good statistics but, based on recent history, she had no chance of winning it.
The reason? Her team isn't that good.
The Gophers, even after a three-game winning streak, are only 16-9 overall and 5-6 in Big Ten play, which puts them in seventh place.
Banham, for the most part, has done about as much as she can for Minnesota. She leads the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 22.1 points per game. Leads the conference in three-point shooting, 47.3 percent, and is tied for the most threes made, 69. She has scored 20 points or more 15 times.
But she plays on what looks like an NCAA bubble team unless the Gophers can stay on their current roll.
Naismith Trophy winners, in contrast, play on teams that win conference and national titles. To wit:
Eight of the past 14 winners have played on NCAA championship teams. One was on an NCAA runner-up and three others on Final Four teams.
The two times a Naismith Trophy winner wasn't on a Final Four team were in 2013, when Brittney Griner won the award for a second time after leading Baylor to the NCAA title the year before, and in 2007 when Lindsey Harding of Duke won it. The Blue Devils were 32-2 that season but were upset by Rutgers in a regional semifinal.
Here is a look at the recent Naismith Trophy winners since 2000:
2013: Brittney Griner, Baylor ... Bears were 34-2 but were upset by Louisville in regional semifinal.
2012: Griner. ... Led Baylor to NCAA title.
2011: Maya Moore, UConn ... Huskies lost in Final Four
2010: Tina Charles, UConn ... Led Huskies to NCAA title
2009: Moore. ... Led Huskies to NCAA title
2008: Candace Parker, Tennessee ... Led Lady Vols to NCAA title
2007: Lindsey Harding, Duke ... Led 32-2 team
2006: Seimona Augustus, LSU ... Tigers lost in Final Four
2005: Augustus ... Tigers lost in Final Four
2004: Diana Taurasi, UConn ... Led Huskies to NCAA title
2003: Taurasi ... Led Huskies to NCAA title
2002: Sue Bird, UConn ... Led Huskies to NCAA title
2001: Ruth Riley, Notre Dame ... Led Irish to NCAA title
2000: Tamika Catchings, Tennessee ... Lady Vols lost in NCAA title game
The field of 30 candidates will be narrowed to four finalists in March. The Gophers have had two players make that short: Lindsay Whalen in 2003 and '04 and Janel McCarville in 2005.
The Gophers wrestling team felled mighty Penn State 18-17 at the Sports Pavilon last month and tied for the Big Ten dual meet title with the Nittany Lions and Iowa. All finished 7-1.
Minnesota also won the National Duals -- for the third year in a row -- in Columbus, Ohio, and more recently beat Iowa State to finish 13-1 in dual meets.
But when the Big Ten meet is held in Madison, Wis., they won't be favored to win it. They're a longshot, behind Penn State and even Iowa.
A team's dual meet strength and tournament strength are often way different.
InterMat, the website based in St. Louis Park, has two different polls each week.
Its dual meet poll has one top three this week: 1. Minnesota (14-1), 2. Penn State (15-1), 3. Iowa (15-2).
Its tournament strength poll another: 1. Penn State, 2. Iowa, 3. Minnesota.
In a tournament, it's much more important to have several studs. Wrestlers who can win a title or at least reach the finals.
In the NCAA tournament last year, Penn State won with 123.5 points and the Nittany Lions had five wrestlers in the finals; two won titles.
So for fun, let's look at the Big Ten tournament to see who should be favored to win. You probably can guess it will be PSU -- and that is how it turns out.
To analyze the Big Ten tournament, we have to make some assumptions and use some shortcuts:
Let's assume the pretournament seeds for the Big Ten meet are 100 percent accurate and, in every case, the higher rated wrestler wins ... big assumption there.
The scoring system, at it's core, works like this: 16 points for first, 12 for second, 10 for third, 9 for fourth, 7 for fifth, 6 for sixth, 4 for seventh and 3 for eight. There's one additional point for advancing in every championship round, we'll give those, too.
Then there's bonus points for falls, technical falls, forfeits, majors, etc. We can't get into that. Way to hard to predict. There is also a half-point awarded for wins in consolation bracket. Gotta pass on that, too, for the same reasons.
That's OK. Looking at who is expected to finish in the top eight will suffice. Most of a team's points come from high finishes.
We'll look at who the Gophers have, plus Penn State and Iowa. One of those three should win the Big Ten.
125 pounds: Penn State has the favorite in Nico Megaludis, 23-2 and ranked No. 2 in the country by Amateur Wrestling News. The Gophers have nobody in the top 20 . ... PSU 16, Iowa 10, Gophers 0, with bonus points for advancing in the championship round, PSU 20, Iowa 12, Gophers 0.
133: Iowa has favorite in Tony Ramos,24-2 and ranked 3 nationally. David Thorn (21-4) of Gophers is ranked third among conference wrestlers. ... Iowa 16, Gophers 10, PSU 3. ... With bonus points, Iowa 20, Gophers 12, PSU 5.
141: Penn State has favorite in Zain Retherford, a freshman who is 26-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country. Chris Dardanes (22-5) of Gophers is ranked third among conference wrestlers. ... PSU 16, Gophers 10, Iowa 7. ... With bonus points, PSU 20, Gophers 12, Iowa 8.
149: The first weight one of the top three does not have the top seed. Jake Sueflohn of Nebraska, 27-3 and No. 2 nationally, comes in as the No. 1 seed. Gophers junior Nick Dardanes is seeded second. But it is also one of the toughest weights. Four conference wrestlers are ranked in the top eight in the country. ... Gophers 12, Iowa 9, PSU 7. ... With bonus points, Gophers 15, Iowa 11, PSU 8.
157: This is another killer weight in the Big Ten. Isaac Jordan of Wisconsin is the favorite and ranked No. 2 in country with a 23-4 mark. But five of the top six ranked wrestler in the country are Big Ten guys. Gopher Dylan Ness (18-4) is the second highest ranked Big Ten wrestler. ... Gophers 12, Iowa 9, PSU 7. ... With bonus points, Gophers 15, Iowa 11, PSU 8.
That's the five lowest weights, counting up the points totals, here is how the top three teams would stack up without upsets:
Iowa 62, Penn State 61, Gophers 54 ... pretty close. Bonus points for fall, technical falls, major decisions and one-half point for advances in the consolation bracket could change the order pretty easily.
Looking at the heavier weights, where the Gophers have several of their best wrestlers:
165: David Taylor of Penn State (26-0) -- No. 1 nationally -- and Nick Moore of Iowa are the two highest ranked wrestlers. The Gophers have Danny Zilverberg, seeded sixth. ... PSU 16, Iowa 12, Gophers 6. With bonus points, PSU 20, Iowa 15, Gophers 7.
174: Robert Kokesh of Nebraska is the favorite. He is 28-1 ranked No. 3 in the country. Right behind him are wrestlers from Penn State, Iowa and Gopher Logan Storley (27-3). A key weight for Gophers to do well at. ... PSU 12, Iowa 10, Gophers 9. ... With bonus points, PSU 15, Iowa 12, Gophers 11.
184: Ed Ruth of Penn State is the favorite, 25-1 and ranked No. 3 in the country. Kevin Steinhaus of the Gophers is ranked second and is 19-4. Ethan Lofthouse of Iowa is third among Big Ten wrestlers. So again top teams should bump heads here. ... PSU 16, Iowa 12, Gophers 10. ... With bonus points, PSU 20, Iowa 15, Gophers 12.
197: Morgan McIntosh of Penn State is the favorite after upsetting previously unbeaten Gopher Scott Schiller in the big dual at the Sports Pavilion. McIntosh is 25-2 and ranked No. 3 in the country. Schiller, 26-3, dropped to third among Big Ten wrestlers. ... PSU 16, Gophers 10, Iowa 7. ... With bonus points, PSU 20, Gophers 12, Iowa 8.
Hwt.: Freshman Adam Coon of Michigan is the favorite and ranked No. 1 in the country. He is 28-1. But this is another brutal weight class in the conference with seven of the top eight rated wrestlers in the country. Tony Nelson of the Gophers, the two-time defending NCAA champion, is rated fifth in the conference which should tell you something about the heavyweights. He is 22-4. ... Iowa 9, Gophers 7, PSU 4. ... With bonus points, Iowa 11, Gophers 8, PSU 5.
So here are the updated totals for the three team favorites based on seedings being totally accurate:
Penn State 132, Iowa 117, Gophers 89.
If the favorites win, the Nittany Lions would have six individuals champions and one runner-up. ... Iowa would have one champion and one runner-up. The Gophers would two runners-up.
Nebraska would have two champions and Wisconsin one.
It could conceivably happen this way but chances are much greater it won't. Individual and team titles are not won on paper, everyone knows.
But what this breakdown points out pretty clearly, is that co-Big Ten dual meet champion Penn State is still the team to beat in Madison.
Is there a scenario the Gophers win? Yes. Tony Nelson and Scott Schiller of the Gophers were rated No. 1 at heavyweight and 197, respectively, almost all season before recent losses. They could win titles at Big Ten. Dylan Ness, a recent Big Ten wrestler of the week, could surprise at 157, too. He has been wrestling well lately.
Nick Dardanes and Kevin Steinhaus, as second seeds, could be title threats.
If the Gophers get a handful of wrestlers in the finals, and win a couple of titles, they could be in the hunt. But they need a lot of things to go right for them.
Going into the Big Ten meet, they'll be underdogs.
To be a Division I athlete in any sport has to be fulfilling.
But today, it's got to be especially nice to be a Gophers softball player. Fourth-year coach Jessica Allister has taken her squad to Baton Rouge, La., for a season-opening tournament. Allister needs two wins to reach 100 at the U of M.
Yes, they are out of the cold and snow for a while. Highs for the tournament are supposed to reach the low 60s. And everybody has to be excited. It's a team loaded with talent.
Three first-team, All-Big Ten players are the core of the team. In the circle most games will be senior Sara Moulton. She's in the top three in program history in wins with 85, strikeouts with 940 and innings with 807.2. Last season she was 32-12 with a 1.57 ERA and 308 strikeouts.
You have to have a pitcher in softball and the Gophers do.
You also have to be able to score a few runs. That's where the other two returning all-conference players come in. One is third baseman Kaitlyn Richardson, who is on the watch list for national player of the year. She hit .430 last season with 10 homers and 43 RBI. So she has some pop in her bat.
So does shortstop Tyler Walker who hit .379 with 12 homers and 32 RBI.
Those two batted leadoff and third in the Gophers' lineup. Their season came to an end when Minnesota lost 3-0 to Hawaii in the NCAA tournament on May 18 in Seattle.
The Gophers finished 36-19, 14-6 and tied for third in the Big Ten.
This team, on paper, should be better. Fourteen players return. Only two starters graduated, catcher Kari Dorle and designated player Alex Davis.
The infield is all back, the outfield is all back.
Here is the Gophers' schedule the first weekend in LSU's Tiger Classic:
Murray St., 3 p.m.
LSU, 5 p.m. ... Tigers are rated No. 17 in USA Today poll
Southern Illinois, 9 a.m.
Central Arkansas, 11 a.m.
Oklahoma State, 11 a.m.
After the trip to LSU, the Gophers make trips to Las Vegas, Greensboro, N.C., Tempe, Ariz., Stillwater, Okla., Conway, S.C., and Lincoln, Neb.
Then, weather permitting, they open at home March 28-30 versus Illinois.
They start so early because they have a 56-game regular-season to get in by May 4.
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