TUSCALOOSA, ALA. – The Gophers grabbed a bat Friday and took out their frustrations.
Fortunately, they did so on a softball.
Minnesota, the No. 1-ranked team in the coaches’ poll that didn’t get seeded in the NCAA tournament, opened play in the Tuscaloosa Regional with an 11-3 victory over Louisiana Tech at Rhoads Stadium. The Gophers won in five innings by the mercy rule, but they weren’t in a particularly merciful mood.
The Big Ten regular-season and tournament champions improved to 55-3 and advanced to the winners’ bracket semifinal against host and 16th-seeded Alabama, which beat Albany 5-1. First pitch has been moved up two hours to 11:30 a.m. Saturday because of weather concerns.
“We just wanted to get out there really,” second baseman McKenna Partain said. “Just attack early, go for it early, get ahead early.”
The committee that created the national championship bracket released a statement earlier in the week, citing the Gophers’ strength of schedule as the reason they weren’t awarded one of the 16 seeds. In its first game of the tournament, Minnesota made its own statement.
“It was exciting, it was good for us to get back on the field and have competition,” right fielder Maddie Houlihan said.
Louisiana Tech (37-23) didn’t provide a lot of competition. The Conference USA tournament champions were barraged from the start.
Minnesota scored three runs in the bottom of the first inning. Leadoff batter Sam Macken hit a single to right field and advanced to third on a one-out double by catcher Kendyl Lindaman. Houlihan singled in a run and Partain doubled in two more to put the Gophers up 3-0.
Partain and Houlihan both went 3-for-3, with each hitting a double and driving in four runs.
The Gophers added five more runs in the second, chasing Louisiana Tech lefthander Krystal De La Cruz (13-4) as well as reliever Jenny Chapman, another lefty.
“Our approaches don’t change,” Houlihan said. “We put aggressive swings on good pitches. If the pitcher comes over the plate, we look to attack that.”
The Lady Techsters fell apart in the bottom of the third, committing three errors as Minnesota scored three more runs.
Ace Sara Groenewegen got the start but not the win for Minnesota, as she only pitched two innings of hitless ball with one walk. Reliever Amber Fiser (14-0) was the winner, yielding one unearned run on two hits with two strikeouts and no walks. Tori Finucane pitched the final inning.
Groenewegen, who will be needed more and more as the regional progresses, got her six outs on 25 pitches.
“It’s imperative just throughout the entire postseason to keep people fresh,” Allister said, “and to make sure everybody is ready when they get out there.”
Minnesota had its own defensive problems, committing three errors. All three Louisiana Tech runs were unearned.
“We’re not going to go through this tournament without making any mistakes,” Allister said. “Yeah, we’ve got to play a little bit cleaner.”
This game was really about getting back to softball after five trying days since the tournament seeds were announced.
“It was great to see the team come together and just enjoy each other out there,” Allister said.
Outfielder Morgan Turkoly singled in two runs for the Lady Techsters, who dropped to the losers’ bracket.
Follow Tommy Deas on Twitter this weekend as he covers Gophers softball for the Star Tribune: @tommydeas.