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Gophers softball team opens Big Ten play as favorite

The Gophers are 25-2 so far this softball season and haven't played a home game yet. This weekend they will be at Nebraska for a three-game series to open Big Ten play.

Minnesota is ranked No. 8 in the USA Today/National Fastpitch Coaches Association ratings and No. 11 in the RPI rankings. No other conference team is close to those rankings, although Wisconsin at 21-2 also has a gaudy record. Besides the Badgers, every other Big Ten team has seven losses or more, even perennial power Michigan.

In the coaches' poll, Michigan is No. 18, Wisconsin No. 21. In the RPI rankings,Ohio State is No. 16, Michigan No. 23 and Wisconsin No. 32.

So what makes the Gophers tick. A little bit of everything.

They can hit. Their team batting average is .342 -- tops in the Big Ten and 12th among all NCAA teams. Six players are hitting .350 or higher. They lead the conference with 50 doubles and a .431 on-base percentage.

Runs scored? Walks? The Gophers are first there with 183 runs and 98 walks.

Minnesota recently finished a West Coast road trip -- nine games in nine days -- with a 7-2 mark. No. 6 Washington ended their season-opening 19-game winning streak with a 3-2 win in a white knuckler, then blew out Minnesota two days later.

But the Gophers bounced back, winning the last four games by a combined score of 38-1.

Junior first baseman Sydney Dwyer is especially mashing the ball. She is hitting .434 and, with runners in scoring position, a lofty .568. That's why she has 40 RBI, the most of any Big Ten hitter and third most among all NCAA players.

These Gophers can pitch a little, too. The team ERA of 1.67 is the lowest in the Big Ten and is 16th in the NCAA.

Sara Groenewegen, the senior righthander from White Rock, British Columbia, is 11-1 with a 0.65 ERA and 99 Ks. She is the staff ace for the fourth year in a row.

But coach Jessica Allister has used four other pitchers with good results. Tori Finucane, a senior transfer from Missouri, is 4-0 an has throw a one-hitter and a two-hitter. Freshman Carlie Brandt, of Le Sueur, Minn., primarily a reliever, is 5-0 with a 0.91 ERA.

In fielding, the Gophers are second in the Big Ten at .910, trailing Michigan at .981.

Nebraska, their first Big Ten foe, certainly seems beatable. The Cornhuskers are a pedestrian 8-17 although they are 4-0 at home and coming off a 15-11 win over visiting Omaha -- the highest scoring game in Bowlin Stadium history.

Nebraska hit three homers in the slugfest and had 18 hits, putting up crooked numbers in four innings.

The Cornhuskers are led by the legendary Rhonda Revelle, in her 25th season. She has 921 career wins and has taken 20 teams to NCAA tournaments and three to World Series. Twenty times her teams have finished in the top 15. This club doesn't look like a powerhouse, though.

Nobody's playing where she was last year with unbeaten Gophers softball team

The Gophers are 18-0 this season. And the amazing part of that record is all the changes coach Jessica Allister has made.

There was a new player at every position last Sunday -- when the Gophers rallied to beat Illinois State 7-3 -- and in almost every game this season.

The only player who trots out to her same position is Sara Groenewegen, when she pitches.

Here's a look at all the changes:

TWO FRESHMAN START

MaKenna Partain of Banks, Oreg., starts at second base. She is hitting a team-high .472 and was named the Big Ten's freshman of the week for a second time this season on Monday. Partain has started all 18 games and has made only three errors. She is third on team with 10 walks and has scored 15 runs.

Kendyl Lindaman of Ankeny, Iowa, starts at catcher. She leads the team in homers with five, has 14 RBI and is hitting .370. She, too, has started every game.

She is tied for second in homers among Big Ten players, and is third in total bases with 39. She also has thrown out six of the 12 players who have tried to steal on her.

THE HOLDOVERS

Sam Macken, a senior from Rochester, Minn., has moved from third base. where she played 56 games last season, to left field. She is hitting .266 with 11 RBI; had two big hits last Sunday vs. Illinois State in late innings. She is the leadoff hitter. Macken leads outfielders with 18 putouts.

Danielle Parlich, a junior from Queen Creek, Ariz., has moved from second base to third base. She is hitting .377 and has 26 hits, tied for second in the Big Ten, and has scored a team high 17 runs, tied for third among conference players. Has only one walk, but has struck out just twice. Made five errors at a tough position. She has at least one hit in every game.

Maddie Houlihan, sophomore from Benilde-St. Margaret's, has moved from first base to right field. She is hitting .375 with 14 RBI. Hasn't shown the power yet she did last season (11 HRs) when she was Big Ten freshman of the year. Has seven doubles, tied for first in the Big Ten, but no homers yet.

Sydney Dwyer, a junior from Bettendorf, Iowa, moved from shortstop/designated player to first base. She is hitting .434 and leads team with 20 RBI.

Dani Wagner, a junior from Hayfield, Minn., has moved from shortstop to center field. She is hitting .360 with three homers and 14 RBI. Last season she played in 44 games, started in 22, all at shortstop. She was often a pinch-runner, succeeding on all six of her steal attempts.

Sara Groenewegen, senior from White Rock, British Columbia, is the one player whose position has not changed when she is in the circle. She starts as designated player when someone else pitches. Groenewegen is 9-0 with a 0.50 ERA and 77 Ks in 56.1 innings.

She has struggled at the plate, hitting only .163 with nine RBI on one double and eight singles. Last season she had 11 HRs and 41 RBI and hit .296.

THE TRANSFERS

Sophomore Allie Arneson transfered from Virginia, where she started 43 of 44 games. She has started all 18 games for the Gophers and is hitting .194. She has some pop in her bat, of her eight hits, two are doubles and two are homers. She had 20 putouts, 33 assists and only three errors. She has been a part of five double plays.

Senior pitcher Tori Finucane is the other key transfer. She came from Missouri. She is 3-0 with a 2.50 ERA. She gives the Gophers another reliable starter.

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