By losing the first three games of a four-game series against Michigan, the Gophers saw their chance at the Big Ten softball championship disappear, with the Wolverines clinching the regular-season title Saturday at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium.
That left the Gophers with two jobs for Sunday's finale: Give the program's five seniors a victory on Senior Day and bolster the team's argument for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
Consider both tasks accomplished.
Behind home runs by MaKenna Partain, Natalie DenHartog and Sydney Strelow in the first two innings, the 23rd-ranked Gophers beat No. 19 Michigan 7-3 in their regular-season home finale. Minnesota (26-10) banged out eight hits and chased Michigan ace Alex Storako, who gave up the three homers among her five runs along with three walks in two-plus innings. Storako (19-3) entered the game with a 0.67 ERA and left with a 0.93 mark as Michigan fell to 32-6.
"Yesterday, it wasn't the outcome or some of the performances we were looking for, but it's really all about rebounding and how you get the next one," Gophers coach Piper Ritter said. "I was proud of how they kept pushing the rock up the hill, kept making adjustments and fighting in the game."
The Gophers, who sit in second place in the Big Ten and have a four-game series at Penn State next weekend to finish the regular season, are trying to make the NCAA tournament for the eighth consecutive time. Since the Big Ten is not having a tournament this year, Michigan will receive the conference's automatic NCAA bid by winning the regular-season title. Last year's NCAA tournament was canceled because of COVID-19.
"I know the selection committee likes to do some crazy things, and in the past, it hasn't always been in our favor," Ritter said. "I don't know what they're going to do, but we have to take care of business at Penn State. Hopefully, we'll put ourselves in a good position."
On Sunday, the Gophers trailed right away when starter Amber Fiser issued a one-out walk to Natalia Rodriguez, who stole second and scored on Lou Allan's double to left-center.
Minnesota responded emphatically in the bottom of the first. After Ellee Jensen led off with a four-pitch walk off Storako, Partain hammered a home run to left-center for a 2-1 Gophers lead. DenHartog followed with a moon-shot homer to left for a 3-1 edge.
"It was amazing," Fiser said of the power display. "MaKenna hitting the first home run on Senior Day, that was huge. We are so proud and happy for her. Then Natalie hits one back-to-back, that was a great at-bat. … It was a great day all around."
The Gophers boosted the lead to 4-1 in the second when Strelow led off with a homer to left, with the ball hitting the Larson Football Performance Center.
"They happened to be home runs, but all we ask for is they put a hard swing on a good pitch, and the outcomes will come," Ritter said.
Fiser (13-7) found her groove, pitching four consecutive scoreless innings as the Gophers built the lead to 7-1, highlighted by Strelow's RBI single in the third and Sara Kinch's run-scoring hit in the fifth.
"I just knew I had to trust my pitches and attack every hitter, try to find a way to beat them individually," Fiser said. "I knew if the ball was put into play, my defense had my back."
The Wolverines scored two runs off Fiser in the sixth, and Autumn Pease pitched a 1-2-3 seventh to secure the victory. That set off a celebration and started a postgame salute to seniors Fiser, Partain, Katelyn Kemmetmueller, Carlie Brandt and Macy Gill, with the Gophers planning to make more noise in the NCAA tournament.
"It was a really good preparation for postseason," Ritter said. "You want to see the best down the stretch, so you know what to expect."