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.
Well, the Gophers slipped in there. They were seeded No. 16 -- out of 16 seeded teams -- for the NCAA softball tournament, meaning they get to host a four-team regional this weekend.
Friday's schedule at Jane Cowles Stadium:
Auburn (39-17-1) vs. North Dakota St. (35-16), 4 pm
Gophers (41-9) vs. Wis-Green Bay (27-12), 6:30 pm
The most formidable opponent there seems to be Auburn, one of 11 -- that's not a typo -- SEC teams in the tournament. The Big Ten has five, the most since 2009. The Pac-12 also has five.
The U is 33-3 all-time against the Phoenix, their first foe in the double-elimination regional, 19-1 vs. NDSU and 1-1 vs. Auburn.
This is the Gophers ninth NCAA tournament, including last year. This is the second time they have hosted a regional, the other time was in 2002. That year they beat Princeton but lost two two-run games to DePaul.
None of the other five Big Ten teams were seeded, so none are hosts.
Nebraska, the regular-season co-champion with Michigan, seems to have gotten the best draw. The Huskers are in a region with No. 15 seed Missouri in Columbia. This is Nebraska's 22nd NCAA tournament, including 18 in the past 20 years. The Huskers, who open with Kansas, played in the Softball World Series a year ago.
As you have probably figured out by now, the NCAA selection committee, once it seeds 16 teams, tries to group teams in regions geographically as much as possible.
Northwestern is making its 14th NCAA appearance, The Wildcats open against BYU. They are in a regional with No. 12 Washington.
Michigan is making is 22nd NCAA trip and 20th in a row -- the Wolverines have advanced every year since 1995. The blue and maize have appeared in 10 World Series. They play San Diego State first and are in a region in Tempe with No. 9 Arizona St.
Wisconsin has the toughest challenge. The Badgers are in the same region as No. 1 seed Oregon (49-7-1). The Badgers play Albany first. They were in the NCAAs a year ago as well and this is their fifth appearance.
The Gophers are 41-9 after winning the Big Ten softball tournament on Saturday night.
They came into the conference tournament in Evanston, Ill., ranked No. 15 in one of the two major national polls, No 16 in the other. And they were No. 17 in the RPI rankings.
All those numbers should at least stay the same and probably improve a bit this week.
What does that mean? It means they have a chance of being a No. 1 seed at one of the 16 regionals around the country.
That's right, 16 teams will be seeded, Nos. 1-16, and all put at different regionals. The field and sites will be announced at 9 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU.
The key number is RPI, or how strong a team and its schedule are. That carries a lot of weight as the NCAA seeds teams. And Minnesota is on the cusp of breaking into the top 16 there.
In all, 64 teams will make the NCAA field (out of 283 Division I programs). Thirty-two of the teams will be automatic qualifiers, teams like the Gophers who won their conference tournament. Thirty-two teams will receive at-large bids. Big Ten co-champions Michigan and Nebraska should get two of those. And the conference could have as many as five teams in the NCAAs.
The Big Ten Network softball analysts predicted Michigan, which has a strong tradition of making the NCAA field, will probably get a regional. Hosting one, of course, improves a team's chances of advancing. Most teams play better at home. They said nothing about Minnesota getting to host.
Here are the key dates coming up:
May 16-18: 16 regionals, four teams at each, double-elimination format determines a winner
May 22-25: 8 super regionals, two teams at each, they play best-of-three series, winners advance to College World Series
May 29-June 4: College World Series in Oklahoma City, eight teams. Teams are split into two four-team groups who play double-elimination.The winners then meet in a best-of-three series for the NCAA title.
The Gophers have made eight previous appearances in the NCAA tournament, the most recent a year ago when they were at the Seattle regional and went 1-2. In between two 3-0 losses to Hawaii, the Gophers beat Portland State 5-0. That experience should serve the players well this year.
Minnesota's overall record in those eight postseason trips is 8-16. They have never advanced to the College Softball World Series.
After beating No. 10/11 Michigan 3-2 in the title game of the Big Ten tournament, the Gophers are 8-5 against top 25 teams. And their confidence should be at a season high.
"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.
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