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.
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.
It had to be a misprint. Of course.
Yet there it was, on the Gophers' and NCAA's websites. The U of M, which had won the Big Ten tournament led by co-medalist Jose Mendez, was the 11th seed out of 13 teams in the three-day Raleigh, N.C., regional starting Thursday.
Can't be. But, on closer inspection, it's true.
The Raleigh regional is loaded. The favorite ia Georgia Tech, the No. 2 team in the country in the latest Golf Week/Sagarin men's performance index. Only Alabama, the defending NCAA is ahead of the Yellowjackets.
And it doesn't stop there with golf heavyweights at Raleigh. Also in the field is No. 9 Washington and No. 11 Texas A&M. So three of the best 11 teams in the country.
The tournament will be 54 holes of stroke play, a round each day. The top five teams and top individual not on any of them -- will move on to the NCAA national meet from May 23-28 at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan.
“I think our region probably has the deepest field,” Texas A&M coach J.T. Higgins said. “If you look at Minnesota being an 11 seed and winning the Big 10, Texas Tech playing great at the Big 12 Championship and the kind of season Mercer has put together, there are really eight or nine teams that feel like they’ve got a great chance to advance. We’re going to have to play really great golf to make it to the national championship, but that is always the case this time of year.”
The Gophers are ranked No. 65, so they will have to play as good or better than they did at Big Tens for any chance to keep their season alive.
They have those three powerhouses plus three more teams to contend with in the 30s in the national rankings -- No. 32 Mercer, No. 33 Kentucky, No. 36 Texas Tech and, just out ot fhe 30s, No. 41 Wake Forest.
The rest of the 13-team field: No. 54 Memphis, No. 55 South Alabama, No. 108 Rice and No. 174 Bethune-Cookman. The Gophers are seeded above the last two.
"We have guys playing great golf," Gophers coach John Carlson said on a YouTube video. "Anything can happen. ... [The course] sets up very well for our team ... as long as we can drive the ball well."
Besides Mendez, Jon Trasamar, who tied for third in the Big Ten meet, Alex Gaugert and Jon DuToit will compete in the regional off the conference championship team.
Freshman Grady Meyer won a playoff with several teammates for the fifth spot on the team.
This will be the Gophers first NCAA regional since 2009.
If the Gophers survive the Raleigh regional, they will have a strong taste, up close and personal, of what the NCAA meet will be like.
Georgia Tech was 31-15-3 against top 25 teams. Tech's star is Ollie Schniederjans, rated No. 3 nationally.
"I like where we're going, because it's golf in the Southeast and typical of what we play on every day, from the weather to the grass," Tech coach Bruce Heppler said. "At the end of the day, no matter which one [regional] you're in, if you don't play well, you're not going to get out of there. So I'm not overly concerned with where everybody else is.
"We played a few holes [at the Lonnie Poole course] in the fall," Heppler said, referring to the regional tournament site. "It's a big place, and that suits us okay, too. We've got some guys who can hit the golf ball a long way. The best thing about this time of year is we're out of school, so guys can get their rest, and they can play and practice as much as they want."
Lonnie Poole is a par-71 course, 7,213 yards long.
This is the 17th year in a row Tech has advanced to an NCAA regional. The Yellowjackets were ACC champions to get an automatic spot in postseason play; Schniederjans was the medalist in the conference meet.
Tech and Schniederjans both have finished first in the Yellowjackets' past three tournaments this spring.
Then there's Washington. The Huskies were Pac-12 Conference tournament runners-up to Stanford. They have advanced to nine NCAA national meets. Cheng-Tsunt Pan, their top player, was second in the Pac-12 meet.
Texas A&M had a tough SEC meet, finishing ninth. But junior Greg Yates of the Aggies tied for fifth.
There are three other conference tournament champions in the field: Mercer won the Atlantic Sun, Rice took first in Conference USA and Bethune-Cookman in MEAC. They all got automatic bids to an NCAA regional.
As did the Gophers, who are playing well although under the radar. Mendez, a freshman from Costa Rica and the Gophers top player, is rated No. 142. Minnesota is 1-8 vs. top 25 teams, 4-23-1 vs. top 25 teams. They have faced only one team in the regional, Kentucky, and lost.
But the Gophers have also won three tournaments this spring like Georgia Tech, albeit against less formidale competition.
They did edge No. 8 Illinois, the NCAA national runner-up a year ago, in a white-knuckle finish at the Big Ten meet at French Lick, Ind. The Illini and the U were tied with just a couple holes left. But the Gophers pulled away to win by four strokes.
The Illini are the second seed in their regional and close to home, playing at Sugar Grove, Ill.
The Gophers softball team is quietly having an awesome season. The Gophers (32-6, 10-3) will play at Michigan (33-6, 12-0) this weekend with a chance to move into first place in the Big Ten with a sweep.
The Wolverines lead the conference in hitting (.363), pitching (1.54 ERA) and fielding (.981) and are 9-0 at home.
But the U also has got some talent. The Gophers are second in ERA (1.80) and lead the league with 47 homers (Michigan is third with 35).
The Gophers won two of three from hard-hitting Northwestern last weekend, taking the rubber game 3-1 on Sunday on Sara Gronewegen's five-hitter. The Wildcats had scored 18 runs in the first two games.
Tyler Walker hit a two-run homer for the U in the third game and also got hit by a pitch with the bases loaded to drive in all three runs.
The Gophers are 10-2 in road games.
Minnesota is No. 19 in the national RPI ratings in softball, Michigan is No. 18.
It's a three-team race for the NCAA wrestling title.
Three-time defending champion Penn State has 91 points, two wrestlers in the finals, and five in the wrestlebacks, three in hunt for third, two for seventh.
The Gophers are almost in the exact same spot, with 90.5 points, two in the finals, four in the wrestlebacks going for third, one for seventh.
Then there is homestate favorite Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have four in the finals, one in consolation and 87.5 points.
All three have legitimate shots to win it all.
Here are four key matches that could swing the title race:
At 157 pounds, the final between Dylan Ness of the Gophers and Alex Dieringer of Oklahoma State. Going to be big point swing here. ... Ness came in as ninth seed, but has four wins, the first three by pins. He is 27-6 and hot. Dieeringer, the third seed, is 35-1.
Ness said he expects a great watch. Is willing to take risks. Even go on his back for points, which Dieringer said he would never do. Ness said, whose style has been called funky, said even he doesn't know what he will do on the mat sometimes.
Ness was second as a freshman in the NCAA meet, Dieringer was third last year.
At 165, David Taylor of Penn State, 35-0 and the top seed, faces Tyler Caldwell of Oklahoma State in the final. Another big points swing match. If Cowboys can win both, would sure help their chances. Caldwell is 28-3 and the second seed.
At 174, in the wrestlebacks, Logan Storley of Gophers wrestles Matt Brown of Penn State. Winner advances to third place match. Both are 36-7. Brown is 4-1 in NCAA meet, Storley 3-1.
At heavyweight, Tony Nelson, 34-4 and the top seed, faces second seeded Nick Gwiazdowski of North Carolina State in the finals. He is 46-2. Nelson is going for his third consecutive NCAA title. Nobody in U's rich wrestling history has won three. This is last match of the finals, and if Gophers are close to the lead, Nelson could put them over the top. He said he changed his training regimen after four late-season losses. Worked more on moving his feet, always staying active. Had more 20-30 minute intense workouts, rather than longer, grind-it-out workouts. Nelson calls the G-man from NC State athetic and agile.
Almost halfway through its regular-season -- without playing a single home game, the Gophers softball team is an impressive 22-3.
They have traveled to six different states to play: Arizona, Louisiana, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina and Oklahoma. ... Lost to the nation's No. 1 team, Florida; beat Arizona State, then No. 3, and Louisiana State, then No. 17.
The Gophers have repeatedly shown they are for real. They lead the Big Ten in ERA, 1.57, in shutouts, 11, and strikeouts, 238. Mostly because they have an ace, senior righthander Sara Moulton.
She won her 100th career game when the Gophers edged South Carolina 1-0 on Wednesday and is 15-2 this seson with a 1.17 ERA.
This team can also handle a bat. The Gophers' batting average is only .294, fifth in the Big Ten. But they are first in homers with 30, in RBI with 131 and in slugging percentage at .509. They have a bit of speed, too. Their 37 steals are the third most in the conference.
And they can field adequately. Their .965 fielding percentage is fifth in the Big Ten.
Here's a look at Gophers' batting order -- scary at the top:
Shortstop Tyler Walker leads off. She is hitting .380 and has scored a team-high 24 runs. She gets on any way she can. Walker has walked four times and been hit by a pitch six times. She has some pop: four doubles, four triples, two homers. Has 20 RBI, second on team. And some speed, seven stolen bases in eight attempts. Good contact hitter, with only nine strikeouts.
Second baseman Erica Meyer bats second. She hits only .250 but has scored 17 runs, had seven sacrifice bunts or flies. Has hit four homers and like Walker is 7-for-8 on steal attempts.
Hitting third is the stick that stirs the Gophers' offense, to borrow a line associated with Reggie Jackson at one time. Third baseman Kaitlyn Richardson is hitting a robust .446, with five homers and 27 RBI, all tops on the team, in 25 games. Her slugging percentage is .800. She has scored 22 runs and walked a team-high 21 times. Teams pitch carefully to her. Only five strikeouts.
The cleanup hitter is a freshman, Sara Groenewegen. She is the team's second pitcher and when not in the circle, the designated player. She is hitting .274. Has six doubles, a triple and four homers and 16 RBI. Nice to have someone like Groenewegen behind Richardson so she gets some pitches to hit.
Bree Blanchette, the centerfielder, bats fifth. She is hitting only .243 but her 17 hits have helped drive in 14 runs and she has scored 13. Has eight walks.
No. 6 hitter Taylor Lemay, the catcher, has a team-high six homers and 14 RBI. She is hitting .283 with a .600 slugging percentage. She has scored 13 runs. The Gophers had a big hole to fill behind the plate when Kari Dorle graduated, but LeMay has done the job.
Leftfielder Sydney Fabian is the No. 7 hitter. She is hitting a solid .304 with 14 runs scored and 11 RBI.
Hannah Melick the first baseman hits eighth. She has struggled at the plate. She is hitting .132 with four RBI.
Kayla Wenner, the rightfielder, bats No. 9. She is hitting a low .184 with seven RBI and 11 walks.
The Gophers are No. 16 in one national poll, No. 19 in another. They play No. 15/17 Nebraska(19-8) at 6 p.m. Friday at Bowlin Stadium in Lincoln in their conference opener. Not the easiest place to win.
They are averaging 5.72 runs per game.
Minnesota is hoping to play Illinois next weekend at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium, its home field, weather permitting. That's a big if, of course.
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