Gophers aren't longing for long ball anymore

A team-record 46 homers have helped the once-overmatched Minnesota softball team become competitive once again.

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The Gophers softball team warmed up during practice. Despite their power-hitting prowess, their chances for an NCAA bid are slim.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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The home run is back in vogue at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium, where the Gophers softball team plays.

The Gophers already have set a school record with 46 homers, the most by any Big Ten Conference team -- and that's with six conference games left, all at home. Nearly a third of their 244 runs this season have come via the long ball.

"The game is changing," second-year coach Jessica Allister said Tuesday, as her team prepared for a three-game series with Purdue this weekend. "It is becoming more of an offensive game. There are not many games anymore that are shutouts. And we've got some players who can really hit the ball."

The Gophers' previous record for home runs was 43, set in 1999. They hit 24 last season. Some of their power hitters this season are young and might not exactly look the part.

Tyler Walker, a 5-5 freshman shortstop, has eight homers and is hitting a team-high .368 in the leadoff spot.

"The best feeling is when you are rounding third," said Walker, of San Jose, Calif., "and your whole team is standing at home, waiting to give you high-fives."

Kaitlyn Richardson, another freshman who is an inch taller than Walker and starts at third base, is tied for the team lead in home runs with junior Kari Dorle (nine).

"We see the ball and hit the ball," said Richardson, a .345 hitter from Phoenix, "and sometimes it takes flight. I've been told I am small by some people, but it doesn't matter how big you are. It matters the punch you pack."

Those two lefthanded hitters are among five freshmen starting for Allister, who took over a floundering Gophers program (16-37 in 2010) and quickly made it competitive. Last season the Gophers won 31 games and tied for sixth place in the conference.

Their zenith this season was two weekends ago at home when the Gophers swept Big Ten leader Michigan 1-0 and 6-4 in a doubleheader before losing the third game. Still, it was the first time they won a series from the Wolverines since 1983.

A low point followed last weekend -- three one-run losses at Penn State, with the Nittany Lions winning every game in their final at-bat. Being swept dropped the Gophers to 28-19 overall and into a tie for 10th in the Big Ten at 7-11. Their RPI rating plummeted 24 spots to 73rd, too, meaning their chances for an NCAA at-large bid are dim.

"If we win out, we are on the fringe," Allister said, referring to her team's chances for an at-large spot. "But RPI is a funny animal. It depends on how all of our opponents do. It is not all dependent on us."

Allister is confident her team is making progress and maturing.

"I am very excited about the talent level," she said. "When we put things together, we can compete with anybody."

Sophomore pitching ace Sara Moulton is second in the conference in earned-run average (1.53) and strikeouts (279) and tied for second in victories (22). And supporting her are the big bats. After Dorle, Moulton's battery mate, most of the homers have come from freshmen, who have combined for 30.

"Starting in the fall, coach Allister talked about being a big hitting team," Walker said. "And ever since we've learned not necessarily to swing for the fences, but [to do] the simple mechanics and the homers will come. And for this team this season, they are coming a lot."

  • GOPHERS SOFTBALL 28-19 OVERALL, 7-11 BIG TEN Up next: Six-game homestand • Saturday-Sunday vs. Purdue, May 11-12 vs. Iowa • Jane Sage Cowles Stadium

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