Every time the Big Ten Player of the Year unloads a fastball or blasts a home run she’s driven by the idea that the Gophers still have plenty to prove.
“I feel like teams still go at us like we’re the underdogs. … It’s kind of a good feeling because going after a team and upsetting them — it’s nice,” sophomore Sara Groenewegen said a few days before striking out a school-record 19 batters.
“We know we can make it far, so we’re confident in ourselves.”
Especially Groenewegen, who Wednesday was named not only the top player in the conference but also one of 10 finalists for the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year. She is the Gophers’ first finalist for the top award in college softball.
The national rankings and Big Ten standings (46-8, 20-3 Big Ten) also reveal a lot more than confidence. The Gophers are ranked ninth by ESPN/USA Softball and 12th in the USA Today/coaches poll, and they finished one game behind perennial powerhouse Michigan for the regular-season conference title.
Heading into this weekend’s Big Ten tournament, the Gophers are a shoo-in for the NCAA tournament 64-team field and are in contention to host a regional for the second consecutive year. Last season, they played deeper into the postseason than any other Gophers team had by advancing to the Super Regionals, and they hope to reach the World Series this spring.
They’ll begin this postseason quest on Friday at the Big Ten tournament in Columbus, Ohio. The defending tournament champion and No. 2 seed will play the winner of the game between No. 7 Rutgers and No. 10 Iowa in the quarterfinals.
Whether it’s trying to prove themselves or whatever else has motivated the Gophers this season, it is working.
The Gophers picked up nine total conference honors, including All-Big Ten first team for freshman second baseman Danielle Parlich, senior shortstop Tyler Walker and Groenewegen. Senior first baseman Kaitlyn Richardson and Parlich were selected to the All-Defensive team.
All but Parlich played prominent roles in last season’s postseason showing.
“What last year taught us as a whole is that anything can happen,” Richardson said. “It’s not ‘Oh they’re Minnesota so [a great season isn’t] going to happen to them,’ but it’s about getting hot at the right time and believing you can do it.”
The Gophers have been hot most of the season thanks to their high-powered offense. The .347 team batting average, .593 slugging percentage, 77 home runs and 371 RBI are the best in program history.
Parlich leads the team with a .410 average. Groenewegen has a .384 average, a team-high 12 home runs, and 44 RBI. She also has compiled a 28-4 record and a 1.52 ERA in the circle, collecting 332 strikeouts. The nine starters are all hitting above .312 and have at least 27 RBI.
The offensive muscle has propelled the Gophers to 19 victories by eight or more runs, which ends a game early by the run rule. However, last weekend they had to battle against Purdue, winning the first game 1-0, the second 3-2 in eight innings and then completing the sweep with a 4-2 victory.
Purdue coach Kim Schuette said the Gophers’ variety of skills is what makes them so good.
“They’re tough to beat with Groenewegen on the mound,” Schuette said, “and then they have some more firepower to help her out and throw some heat in there, and then they have the offense to support it.”
Gophers coach Jessica Allister has also been impressed with the many ways her team has been able to win. A young pitching staff with a freshman, sophomore and junior has shown flashes of dominance and been backed by an offense capable of scoring runs when the arms have struggled. The defense has also been instrumental in cleaning up any of the pitching staff’s mistakes.
“[What makes this group special is] how many ways we’ve found to win,” Allister said.
“We’ve really found a lot of different ways to be successful, whether it be putting up runs or throwing shutouts, playing great defense or striking out a lot of people. And those run have come from more than just one spot in the order. They’ve come up and down the lineup and from people in and out of the lineup. … We have a lot of weapons.”