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 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.
Senior Kaitlyn Richardson is playing a new position this season for the Gophers. She's at first base instead of third.
But her hitting ability hasn't changed. She was 9-for-16 last weekend to boost her career average to .400, a nice, gaudy stat.
Minnesota opened the season in a tournament in Las Vegas and went 5-0. This weekend the Gophers are in Florida for four more games, including two on Friday versus Steton University, a team they have never played before.
The Hatters are 3-1 and, so far, also are swinging the bats well. They are hitting .426 with seven homers and 31 RBI and have outscored four opponents 32-4. Their one loss was to Michigan State 3-2.
Sophomore righty Sara Groenewegen and company in the circle for the Gophers will try to quiet the Hatters a bit. She is 3-0 with 28 strikeouts in 16 innings -- that's almost two per inning.
The Gophers are No. 12 in one national poll, No. 13 in another. So they are getting noticed. The last time they broke into the top 10 was way back in 1997 when they were No. 9.
ESPN.com/USA Softball has them at No. 12, USA Today/NFCA at No. 13.
Sophomore Wally Ellenson of the Gophers can jump.
And on Friday he cleared 6-9-1/2 on the first try at the NCAA West Prelims in Fayetteville, Ark. Then he cleared 6-11-1/2 on the first try and 7-1, too.
Then he stopped. So did everyone who made that height. All of them made the NCAA meet June 11-14 in Eugene, Ore.
The top 12 high jumpers advanced, and 11 cleared 7-1.
Ellenson was one of six who did it without a miss up to that height, so he tied for first.
He'll, obviously, have to go higher at Eugene if he wants to duplicate what he did a year ago, an All-America showing with a top eight finish.
Teammate Jon Lehman, a senior captain on the U track and field team also is headed West. He finished fourth in the hammer throw, heaving the hammer 214 feet on his fifth toss. Five of his six throws were over 200 feet, so he was pretty consistent.
This will be his first NCAA meet.
Zach Siegmeier, another senior, tied for sixth in the pole vault on Thursday, earning a spot in the national meet as well.
“We’re certainly happy for Jon and Wally. They’ve both had great seasons for us, and we’re excited about their prospects next month in Eugene,” said Steve Plasencia, director of the Gophers men's track and field program.
“We have one more day to move some guys on, and hopefully we’ll continue the success we’ve had over the first two days of competition.”
Gophers men will be competing in three events on Saturday: discus, 1,500 and 4x400.
Oregon coach Mike White was piling it on after the Ducks embarrassed the Gophers 10-2 on Saturday night in a softball Super Regional.
"Minnesota is a great opponent. ... They never give up, they keep coming. ... I'm sure it will be a tough series tomorrow. ... Don't think this is over."
Was he serious? Hard to say. Not sure about this New Zealand native with Midwest ties -- he went to Mt. Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
What is probable, is that the Gophers will play better at 4 p.m. Sunday (ESPN) when the teams meet again. Hard to play worse.
The Ducks ran around the bases at will when Sara Moulton was on the mound. She was tagged for eight runs -- four earned -- and eight hits in three innings.
Nikki Anderson, a sophomore lefthander, was more effective: Two runs in two-plus inning, four hits.
Maybe the Big Ten pitcher of the year can do even better.
Sara Groenewegen played first base Saturday, but the Gophers have to start her in Game 2. She's a power pitcher who can keep Ducks off the bases.
The freshman righthander has struck out 185 in 112 innings. She whiffs 11.6 per seven innings -- that's the best rate in the country.
Groenewegen has struck out 10 or more batters seven times this season. Her season-best is 14, a mark set in her second-career start against Central Arkansas. She tied that number May 2 in a 3-0 loss at Purdue.
The Gophers need to slow down the Ducks' offense, which thrives on speed, which in turn creates chaos.
Minnesota committed four errors Saturday. Each pitcher made made, center fielder Bree Blanchette made one and catcher Taylor LeMay one. The Ducks also were 4-for4 stealing bases.
"We tried to play the game a little fast," Gophers coach Jessica Allister said.
"We struggled," shortstop Tyler Walker said.
The Ducks were as fired up as could be. Last year, when they were the No. 3 seed in the tournament, Nebraska came to Eugene and won 2-of-3 to end Oregon's season.
Oregon didn't want a repeat.
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