"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.