The Gophers required all six-plus hours of softball on Sunday to claim the program’s first NCAA Super Regional appearance.
Freshman Sam Macken popped a three-run homer off the scoreboard in the bottom of the sixth inning of a second championship game — turning a one-run deficit into a two-run lead. Relief pitcher Nikki Anderson finished the six-hour drama with a swift top of the seventh to close out an 8-6 victory over Auburn at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium.
“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” Gophers fourth-year coach Jessica Allister said. “I couldn’t ask for a better group of girls to work with every day. It’s a privilege to watch them compete, and I’m excited to see it get to continue. … We were going to need to embrace the hard and continue to fight through, and the team embodied that and did a great job.”
The victory moved the Gophers into the Super Regional at Oregon, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed. The Gophers (44-10) and the Ducks (52-7-1) will play a best-of-three series for a trip to the Women’s College World Series, with the opener at 9 p.m. Saturday and the second game at 4 p.m. Sunday. A third game, if necessary, would follow at 7 p.m. Sunday.
The Gophers and Auburn (42-19-1) were seeking their first regional championship, and they needed a second title game to settle it. The Tigers won Sunday’s first title game of the double-elimination tournament 4-3 in eight innings on a walk-off homer by pinch hitter Jenna Abbott.
The Gophers, seeded No. 16 in the NCAA field, played from behind for much of the championship marathon. In the finale, they led 1-0 after one inning and 3-2 after two before Mc- Kenzie Kilpatrick gave Auburn a 6-3 lead with a third-inning grand slam. In the fourth, the Gophers trimmed the lead to 6-5.
Overcoming deficits and the walk-off loss were never a concern, Gophers shortstop Tyler Walker said. She had two hits and scored two runs in Game 2 and finished the day 3-for-7 with three runs and a walk.
Kaitlyn Richardson, Erica Meyer and Madie Eckstrom also had a pair of hits in Game 2.
“I think for any other team it’d be difficult, but for us we knew we had Nikki in our back pocket … It wasn’t difficult, it was fun, and I think that’s where we got most of our drive,” Walker said. “It’s a privilege [to take Gophers softball to the super regionals]. It’s been an opportunity, and like I said last time, we’re not done.”
Anderson relieved senior Sara Moulton and freshman Sara Groenewegen and got the win in Game 2.
Lexi Davis started both games for Auburn and pitched 13 innings. She picked up a win and loss.
Groenewegen finished Game 1 and didn’t last long into Game 2, despite striking out seven in a total of 4 ⅓ innings. Moulton started the first game and left trailing 3-0 after five innings. She entered the finale with two outs in the second and struggled to find a rhythm. She hit a batter and walked two before giving up Kilpatrick’s grand slam.
Moulton, who pitched 6 ⅔ innings Sunday, received credit from Macken.
“She is really positive and comes over to give you pep talks before you hit. She’s really confident in all of us, and everyone has each other’s backs,” Macken said. “[Davis] threw my pitch and I took advantage of it.”
Moulton’s last pep talk to Macken helped produce a hit that will give the senior another chance to pitch on the biggest stage Gophers softball has ever seen.