The No. 1-ranked Gophers softball team sat in sheer disbelief last Sunday, when the NCAA tournament pairings came out with 16 other teams seeded above them.
With their dreams of hosting an NCAA regional dashed, the Gophers face a daunting trip to Tuscaloosa, Ala., for Friday’s tournament opener against Louisiana Tech.
Players remained quiet publicly until senior Sara Groenewegen broke the silence. The All-American pitcher didn’t fume at the selection committee. She threw one of her patented changeups, focusing simply on the task ahead: “SURVIVE AND ADVANCE,” she tweeted. “Against ALL odds.”
In a sense, that’s what Groenewegen has been doing her entire career.
She has conquered diabetes. She has made fools of coaches who doubted her as a recruit. She has taken a potent pitching arsenal and added a changeup, a weapon that helped transform the Gophers into a Big Ten power.
Groenewegen has eight career no-hitters and holds the Gophers’ all-time strikeout record, with 1,187. She’ll lead the charge, as Minnesota looks to prove the NCAA selection committee wrong for its controversial decision not to give this 54-3 team a top-16 seed.
The Gophers are riding a 25-game winning streak — the nation’s longest — and climbed to No. 1 in this week’s coaches poll after winning the Big Ten tournament last week in Ann Arbor, Mich.
More rested than she has been since her freshman year, Groenewegen will be a fixture in the pitching circle throughout the NCAA tournament. The righthander from White Rock, British Columbia, is 30-2 with a 0.59 ERA.
“When Sara has the ball in her hand,” Purdue coach Boo De Oliveira said, “Minnesota always has a chance.”
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Groenewegen was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes at age 9 and still wears a computerized insulin pump during games to regulate her blood-sugar level. She was a five-sport standout growing up in the Vancouver suburbs but wasn’t heavily recruited by major college programs.
Coach Jessica Allister admits the Gophers got lucky. Groenewegen, who has 36 career home runs, turned into a better college hitter than anyone projected. And her pitching?
“She’s the total package,” Illinois coach Tyra Perry said.
The pitch that turned Groenewegen (pronounced Grown-uh-wagon) into an All-America player wasn’t even part of her arsenal five years ago.
Mark Smith, coach of the Canadian National Team, saw Groenewegen’s promise, but told her she needed an off-speed pitch to thrive on the international level. She took the advice to heart, developing a changeup that remained an unfinished product when she arrived at Minnesota.
“It’s the best I’ve ever seen,” Allister said.
Even without her devastating changeup, Groenewegen brought a potent set of tools to Minnesota. Gophers pitching coach Piper Ritter said she loved the effortless look of Groenewegen’s delivery and the fierce competitive streak that led her out of jams.
Groenewegen’s pitches weren’t overpowering, but they had late movement. To this day, she rarely throws a straight fastball. Her curve ball tails away from righthanded hitters; her screwball tails away from lefties. She throws both of those pitches about 65-miles per hour.
That’s as hard as she throws. Teammates Tori Finucane and Amber Fiser, for comparison, routinely hit 70-mph.
But then there’s Groenewegen’s changeup, which flutters to the plate about 10-mph slower than her other pitches. Hitters get big eyes when they see it and often take big swings, looking downright silly as the ball dives into the dirt.
“It looks like it’s going to be a strike,” Gophers catcher Kendyl Lindaman said. “Right off her hip, you think you can hit it, but you can’t.”
If Johan Santana set the changeup standard in Minnesota, Groenewegen’s is even more effective. The college softball rubber is 43 feet from home plate, compared to 60 feet, 6 inches in baseball. So a 65-miles-per-hour pitch from Groenewegen gets to the plate about as quickly as a 91-mph offering in baseball.
According to ESPN Sports Science, once a softball pitch is thrown, the hitter has only about 0.025 seconds to decide whether to swing, or 55 percent less time than a major league hitter.
If her pitch is even “a tenth of a second” slower than expected, a batter is toast, said Dr. Tom Pardikes, president and co-founder of gameSense Sports, a science-based athlete performance company. “That swing is going to be out of whack.”
As a potent hitter herself, Groenewegen challenges batters the way she hates being challenged at the plate. She throws pitches in on their hands, then gets them to wave at the next one, low and away.
She prides herself on being able to throw any pitch in any count, disguising the changeup, screwball and curve by using the exact same grip for each one. When her changeup was still in development, Groenewegen slowed her delivery too much when she threw it, giving away what was coming. Now, it’s almost impossible to tell.
“If you had asked me five, six years ago if my changeup would look how it is now, I would not have believed it,” Groenewegen said. “It took me a long, long time to get to the point I could throw it in a game. But obviously it was worth it. It’s my go-to pitch now.”
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It all came together for Groenewegen as a freshman, when she posted a 2.23 ERA, teaming with standout pitcher Sara Moulton as the Gophers reached the Super Regionals for the only time in program history.
Moulton graduated that spring, and Groenewegen had to shoulder most of the team’s load the next two seasons. At last spring’s Big Ten tournament, for example, the Gophers played 24 innings en route to the championship, and Groenewegen threw every pitch.
She was admittedly spent the next weekend, when the Gophers got bounced from the regionals for the second consecutive year. She finished the season with 234⅔ innings pitched, almost the exact number she posted one year earlier.
Last summer she underwent surgery to repair a torn medial collateral ligament in her knee. Her healing process coincided with new help. Fiser (13-0, 1.74 ERA) and fellow freshman Carlie Brandt (6-0, 0.84) have given the pitching staff a huge boost.
With the lighter load — 190 innings — Groenewegen is pitching better than ever, including a no-hitter over Northwestern in last week’s Big Ten quarterfinals.
“It’s made me love the game of softball again,” she said. “Every time I step onto the field, I’m excited to be there now, and I couldn’t necessarily say the same thing last year or the year before.”
If you wanted to sum up her career with one performance, you might pick her 12-inning masterpiece April 19 at Wisconsin. The game was scoreless for 11 innings. Groenewegen singled in the 12th and came around to score the first run on a headfirst slide.
She finished off the shutout with this pitching line: 12 innings, nine hits, zero runs, zero walks, 15 strikeouts.
“When you can throw an extra-inning game on the road, every inning the other team’s got a chance to walk off and win,” Wisconsin coach Yvette Healy said. “You saw why she’s one of the best pitchers in the country.”
Another career defining moment for Groenewegen came in the 2015 Pan Am Games, when she pitched Team Canada to an upset of Team USA for the gold medal.
Softball was added back to the Olympics for the 2020 Tokyo Games, and competing there is one of Groenewegen’s goals. She’ll also have a chance to play professionally after getting selected No. 2 overall by the Akron Racers in last month’s National Pro Fastpitch draft.
But those goals can wait. For now, Groenewegen is determined to send the Gophers to their first College World Series.
“All four of my years here, we’ve always looked at ourselves as underdogs,” she said. “We’re going to continue to play with a chip on our shoulder. Yeah, we’re a top team, but we want more.”
Groenewegen said those words before last Sunday’s NCAA snub. She has an even bigger score to settle now.