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.
"We can do huge, huge things," Gophers senior outfielder Bree Blanchette predicted on Friday after hitting a grand slam in her team's first game in the Big Ten softball tournament.
Turns out she was right.
Third-seeded Minnesota followed up a 6-3 comeback win over Purdue in Friday's quarterfinals with two more wins Saturday in Evanston, Ill.
The Gophers beat Ohio State 9-0 in five innings in the semifinals Saturday. And then, in the seventh inning of the championship game at night, pushed across a run to shock top-seeded Michigan 3-2.
Can you say Big Ten tournament champs? For only the second time.
The Gophers other tournament title came in 1999 when they also beat Michigan in the title game -- in Ann Arbor by the same 3-2 score..
Saturday night an unlikely player, freshman left fielder Sam Macken, got the biggest hit.
With runners at the corners and two outs, she hit a hard hopper right at the Wolverines second baseman Abby Ramirez. As she prepared to field the ball it took a funny big hop right over her head. In came Erica Meyer from third base. Meyer had walked, stolen second on a close play and moved to third on a wild pitch.
Macken came into the Big Ten tournament with a seven-game hitting streak but was hitless in three games (0-for-9) until her last at-bat.
"I have been hitting the ball pretty hard," said Macken, who is hitting .257 now with four RBI.
Gophers coach Jessica Allister told her to stay calm and have fun in the seventh. She fouled off the first two pitches, getting in an 0-2 hole. Fouled off another and then got one of the biggest hits in Gophers' softball history.
"[Sam] is just tough," Allister said. "That is why she ended up in the two-hole [batting second]."
"We have been working for this all year," Macken said, referring to a conference tournament title.
"It means we have come a long way," Allister added.
The Gophers' other two runs came in much easier fashion. Junior third baseman Kaitlyn Richardson hit a homer in the fourth inning and, two hitters later, freshman Sara Groenewegen hit another. That tied the score at 2-all.
Groenewegen pitched the first four innings, then moved to first base when Sara Moulton came in. She pitched the final three.
“I’m very, very proud of our girls for their resiliency,” said Allister, whose team trailed Purdue 3-1 and Michigan 2-0.
“We talk a lot about the season – there being ups and downs – and how we have to be able to stay steady throughout it all. … I feel good about the games that we’ve been stringing together the last couple of outings, so I think we’re playing some good softball right now and it should add to our confidence.”
The Gophers, who were already assured of making the NCAA tournament because of their impressive record and strong RPI, got an automatic berth by winning the conference tournament. The complete field will be announced at 9 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU.
Besides the Gophers (41-9), Big Ten co-champions Michigan (42-12) and Nebraska (40-15) also would seem to be locks to get into softball's big dance. Probably Northwestern (33-16) and Wisconsin (34-18), too.
Richardson, the Gophers junior third baseman, was the tournament MVP. "I really wanted to be consistently tough in the [batter's] box," she said. "I was lucky I found some holes tonight."
"She knows she can hit," Allister said.
Moulton, a senior pitcher, and junior shortstop Tyler Walker made the all-tournament team along with Richardson.
Richardson was 6-for-7 in three tournament games with two homers, two doubles, three RBI and three runs scored. She and Moulton, who got her 12th shutout against the Buckeyes, are among the 25 candidates for the player of the year in Division I softball, but didn't make the cut to 10 finalists.
Richardson is hitting a team-high .433 with 47 RBI -- one ahead of Walker for the team lead -- and 10 homers. Walker and Groenewegen also have 10 homers apiece; catcher Taylor LeMay has a team-high 11.
In last week's RPI, the Gophers were No. 17, followed by Michigan at No. 18 and Nebraska at No. 19. ..... In the ESPN/USA Softball poll, Michigan was No. 11, the Gophers No. 16 and Nebraska No. 18. ... In the USA Today/NFCA poll, Michigan was No. 10, the Gophers No. 15 and Nebraska No. 18.
Bree Blanchette, a senior from Eagan, had never hit a grand slam in college. Until Friday.
Blanchette's grand slam in the sixth inning carried the Gophers to a 6-3 victory over Purdue in Evanston, Ill., in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament.
Minnesota had entered the inning down 3-1. But Erica Meyer, the hitter before Blanchette, had walked to force in a run and make the score 3-2. Blanchette said she went up to bat looking for a strike to hit and just wanted to hit the ball the hard.
She sure did, over the left-field fence.
Kaitlyn Richardson also homered for the Gophers. Hers came with nobody aboard.
Three pitchers were used by the Gophers. Sara Moulton started and gave up two runs in three innings. Sara Groenewegen pitched three-plus innings and gave up one run and got the victory. And, after Purdue got two players on base in the seventh, lefthander Nikki Anderson came in and got three outs for a save.
The Gophers will now play Ohio State, which upset conference co-champion Nebraska 7-5 in eight innings. The game will be on the Big Ten Network at 2:30 p.m.
The second semifinal between Michigan, the other conference co-champion and top seed, and Wisconsin will follow. The championship game will be 7:30 p.m.
The Gophers (39-9) did not play Ohio State during the regular season.
Everybody is going to be there. All 12 teams in the ever-expanding Big Ten Conference.
In Evanston, Ill., playing to a winner in the conference softball tournament.
It's a single-elimination format, no room for mistakes, and the winner gets an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
The Gophers are the third seed in the field. And this year, they don't really have to worry too much how they do. Win or lose, they will be in the NCAA tournament. They've had a strong season, by winning percentage, the best in school history.
Minnesota is 38-9 with an RPI that's No. 17 in the country. RPI measure a team's strength of schedule. And the Gophers' RPI is the best in the Big Ten, just ahead of conference co-champions Michigan at No. 18 and Nebraska at No. 18. Both those teams have 40 wins, but Michigan (40-11) has played five more games, Nebraska (40-14) seven more.
The Gophers have a realistic shot at doing well in Evanston mostly because of their pitching depth. Freshman Sara Groenewegen. a freshman, was named the Big Ten's pitcher and freshman of the year on Wednesday. And senior Sara Moulton holds about every career school record there is.
Either can win. Each also can come in and relieve the other if necessary. When a team needs to win three games in three days like the Gophers need to do, that's a great bonus.
Moulton has the experience, Groenewegen is a little more overpowering as her strikeout numbers suggest.
Here is Thursday's schedule:
No. 6 seed Purdue vs. No. 11 Indiana, 11 am
No. 7 Ohio State vs. No. 10 Penn State, 1:30 pm
No. 8 Iowa vs. No. 9 Illinois, 4:30 pm
No. 5 Northwestern vs. Michigan State, No. 12
Friday's schedule ... all games on Big Ten Network
Purdue-Indiana winner vs. No. 3 Gophers, 11 am
Ohio State-Penn State winner vs. No. 2 Nebraska, 1:30 pm
Iowa-Illinois winner vs. No. 1 Michigan, 4:30 pm
Northwestern-Michigan State winner vs. Wisconsin, 7 pm
Last year the Gophers lost 9-3 to Wisconsin in the title game. Minnesota is 2-1 vs. Nebraska and 1-2 vs. Michigan this season. All those games were on the road.
The Gophers are No. 15 in the USA Today/NFCA poll this week, No. 16 in the ESPN/USA Today poll. The Wolverines are No. 10/11, the Cornhuskers No. 18 in both.
It had to be a misprint. Of course.
Yet there it was, on the Gophers' and NCAA's websites. The U of M, which had won the Big Ten tournament led by co-medalist Jose Mendez, was the 11th seed out of 13 teams in the three-day Raleigh, N.C., regional starting Thursday.
Can't be. But, on closer inspection, it's true.
The Raleigh regional is loaded. The favorite ia Georgia Tech, the No. 2 team in the country in the latest Golf Week/Sagarin men's performance index. Only Alabama, the defending NCAA is ahead of the Yellowjackets.
And it doesn't stop there with golf heavyweights at Raleigh. Also in the field is No. 9 Washington and No. 11 Texas A&M. So three of the best 11 teams in the country.
The tournament will be 54 holes of stroke play, a round each day. The top five teams and top individual not on any of them -- will move on to the NCAA national meet from May 23-28 at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan.
“I think our region probably has the deepest field,” Texas A&M coach J.T. Higgins said. “If you look at Minnesota being an 11 seed and winning the Big 10, Texas Tech playing great at the Big 12 Championship and the kind of season Mercer has put together, there are really eight or nine teams that feel like they’ve got a great chance to advance. We’re going to have to play really great golf to make it to the national championship, but that is always the case this time of year.”
The Gophers are ranked No. 65, so they will have to play as good or better than they did at Big Tens for any chance to keep their season alive.
They have those three powerhouses plus three more teams to contend with in the 30s in the national rankings -- No. 32 Mercer, No. 33 Kentucky, No. 36 Texas Tech and, just out ot fhe 30s, No. 41 Wake Forest.
The rest of the 13-team field: No. 54 Memphis, No. 55 South Alabama, No. 108 Rice and No. 174 Bethune-Cookman. The Gophers are seeded above the last two.
"We have guys playing great golf," Gophers coach John Carlson said on a YouTube video. "Anything can happen. ... [The course] sets up very well for our team ... as long as we can drive the ball well."
Besides Mendez, Jon Trasamar, who tied for third in the Big Ten meet, Alex Gaugert and Jon DuToit will compete in the regional off the conference championship team.
Freshman Grady Meyer won a playoff with several teammates for the fifth spot on the team.
This will be the Gophers first NCAA regional since 2009.
If the Gophers survive the Raleigh regional, they will have a strong taste, up close and personal, of what the NCAA meet will be like.
Georgia Tech was 31-15-3 against top 25 teams. Tech's star is Ollie Schniederjans, rated No. 3 nationally.
"I like where we're going, because it's golf in the Southeast and typical of what we play on every day, from the weather to the grass," Tech coach Bruce Heppler said. "At the end of the day, no matter which one [regional] you're in, if you don't play well, you're not going to get out of there. So I'm not overly concerned with where everybody else is.
"We played a few holes [at the Lonnie Poole course] in the fall," Heppler said, referring to the regional tournament site. "It's a big place, and that suits us okay, too. We've got some guys who can hit the golf ball a long way. The best thing about this time of year is we're out of school, so guys can get their rest, and they can play and practice as much as they want."
Lonnie Poole is a par-71 course, 7,213 yards long.
This is the 17th year in a row Tech has advanced to an NCAA regional. The Yellowjackets were ACC champions to get an automatic spot in postseason play; Schniederjans was the medalist in the conference meet.
Tech and Schniederjans both have finished first in the Yellowjackets' past three tournaments this spring.
Then there's Washington. The Huskies were Pac-12 Conference tournament runners-up to Stanford. They have advanced to nine NCAA national meets. Cheng-Tsunt Pan, their top player, was second in the Pac-12 meet.
Texas A&M had a tough SEC meet, finishing ninth. But junior Greg Yates of the Aggies tied for fifth.
There are three other conference tournament champions in the field: Mercer won the Atlantic Sun, Rice took first in Conference USA and Bethune-Cookman in MEAC. They all got automatic bids to an NCAA regional.
As did the Gophers, who are playing well although under the radar. Mendez, a freshman from Costa Rica and the Gophers top player, is rated No. 142. Minnesota is 1-8 vs. top 25 teams, 4-23-1 vs. top 25 teams. They have faced only one team in the regional, Kentucky, and lost.
But the Gophers have also won three tournaments this spring like Georgia Tech, albeit against less formidale competition.
They did edge No. 8 Illinois, the NCAA national runner-up a year ago, in a white-knuckle finish at the Big Ten meet at French Lick, Ind. The Illini and the U were tied with just a couple holes left. But the Gophers pulled away to win by four strokes.
The Illini are the second seed in their regional and close to home, playing at Sugar Grove, Ill.
The Gophers softball team is quietly having an awesome season. The Gophers (32-6, 10-3) will play at Michigan (33-6, 12-0) this weekend with a chance to move into first place in the Big Ten with a sweep.
The Wolverines lead the conference in hitting (.363), pitching (1.54 ERA) and fielding (.981) and are 9-0 at home.
But the U also has got some talent. The Gophers are second in ERA (1.80) and lead the league with 47 homers (Michigan is third with 35).
The Gophers won two of three from hard-hitting Northwestern last weekend, taking the rubber game 3-1 on Sunday on Sara Gronewegen's five-hitter. The Wildcats had scored 18 runs in the first two games.
Tyler Walker hit a two-run homer for the U in the third game and also got hit by a pitch with the bases loaded to drive in all three runs.
The Gophers are 10-2 in road games.
Minnesota is No. 19 in the national RPI ratings in softball, Michigan is No. 18.
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