One year after losing in the Championship Game of the Big Ten Tournament to Wisconsin as a three seed, the Gopher Softball Team entered the tournament this past weekend in Evanston, Illinois as a three seed once again. This time, the Gophers got all the bounces they needed, and won the Big Ten Championship 3-2 over #1 seed Michigan on a walk-off single by freshman Sam Macken. The Gophers also learned Sunday night that they will host a four-team NCAA regional this weekend at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium.
The Gophers started out their tournament on Friday morning against the six seed, Purdue. The Gophers had taken two out of three games from the Boilermakers the weekend before, so the opponent was familiar. The Gophers got off to a good start in the first inning when All-Big Ten First Team infielder Kaitlyn Richardson launched her ninth home run of the season to center field. Senior Sara Moulton started the game for the Gophers in the circle, and gave up two unearned runs in the third inning to give Purdue a 2-1 lead. Big Ten Pitcher and Freshman of the Year Sara Groenewegen moved over from first base to pitch the fourth through the sixth innings, and gave up an additional run in the fifth to extend the Boilermakers lead to 3-1. The Gophers were 1-7 in games when trailing after five inning of play, so things looked bleak for Minnesota. However, in the bottom of the sixth inning, the Gophers finally got their bats together. Richardson doubled, Taylor LeMay singled and Gronenwegen walked in order, and when Purdue pitcher Lily Fecho walked Erica Meyer to force in a run and cut the Purdue lead to 3-2, senior Bree Blanchette stepped up to the plate. She saw a pitch she liked and ripped a grand slam over the left-center field fence to put the Gophers on top 6-3. After Groenwegen allowed the first two Purdue batters to reach base in the top of the seventh inning, Nikki Anderson was called in to pitch for the Gophers. She got the first two batters she faced to ground back to her, and the final Purdue batter Danielle Fletcher flew out to the warning track in right field to complete the 6-3 victory. Groenwegen got credit for the victory, and Anderson got the save, The Gophers would advance to the semi-finals Saturday afternoon to play seventh seeded Ohio State who upset the second seed, Nebraska.
While the Gophers appeared in trouble for a while in Friday's quarterfinal, Saturday's semi-final against Ohio State would never be in danger. Gopher All-Big Ten First Team infielder Tyler Walker started off the game with a lead-off home run, and the Gophers never let up from there as they would go on to win 9-0 in just five innings. After Moulton set the Buckeyes down in order in the bottom of the first inning, Blanchette struck again with a two-run home run this time in the top of the second to give Minnesota a 3-0 lead. Again, after the Buckeyes went down with no effort in the second inning, Walker led off the top of the third and hit her second home run of the game to put Minnesota up 4-0. In the top of the fifth, the Gophers added five more runs on a Richardson double, two sacrifice flies, and a two-run home run by Meyer to put the run-rule in effect. Moulton finished off her one-hitter and the Gophers would advance to the Championship game Saturday night. Moulton improved to 25-6 on the season with the one-hit win. It was her 12th shutout of the season. She also added to her school records with her 110th win and 1,1,62nd strikeout. She now has pitched 988.2 innings in her career.
The Gophers had to wait to see who they would face in the Championship game later that night until after the second semi-final between #4 Wisconsin and #1 Michigan. It would have quite a dramatic ending as Wisconsin would take a 3-2 lead on a home run in the top of the seventh inning. Michigan would make it even more dramatic as Lyndsay Doyle led off the bottom half of the seventh with a single up the middle. Nicole Sappingfield then hit a double off the wall in right field, scoring Doyle from first base to tie the game at 3-3. Big Ten Player of the Year Sierra Romero was walked on four pitches in the ensuing at-bat, and Michigan then executed a double steal, putting runners at second and third with no outs. Caitlin Blanchard then walked off with a single to right field, giving the Wolverines a 4-3 win and a chance to play the Gophers.
In the Championship Game, Groenwegen and Michigan starting pitcher Sara Driesenga were locked in a pitchers duel after three innings of play. Michigan struck first in the top of the fourth inning. Catcher Lauren Sweet singled home two runners after a Walker error at shortstop for Minnesota to put the Wolverines up 2-0. Grownwegen's night in the circle was done after four innings, but she would stay in the game at first base. Richardson led off the bottom of the fourth with a solo home run, and two batters later, Groenwegen made sure she would not be saddled with the loss when she took a pitch over the left field fence for a no doubt about it home run to tie the game at 2. Moulton came in to pitch for the Gophers and after spotless fifth and sixth innings, Michigan threatened in the top of the seventh. After a two out double, and the potential leading run on second base, Sappingfield ripped a hard line drive towards the hole on the left side of the infield, but Walker made up for her error in the fourth inning with an incredible diving grab to send the game into the bottom of the seventh inning still tied at 2. Facing Michigan's ace, Haylie Wagner, who had entered the game after Groenwegen's home run in the fourth, Meyer started things for the Gophers with a lead-off walk. Wagner retired the next two batters, bringing up Walker and the top of the Gopher lineup. With Walker down to her last strike, Meyer stole second base, and then advanced to third on a wild pitch. Michigan then intentionally walked Walker to bring up freshman Sam Macken. Macken, the Gopher left fielder, was 0-3 so far in the game, and was hit-less at this point in the tournament. With a 1-2 count, she ripped a hard bouncer that took a huge hop over Wolverine second baseman Abby Rameriz's head and into the outfield allowing Meyer to score the winning run.
The final score was eerily similar to the Gophers lone other Big Ten Tournament Championship in 1999 when Minnesota won by a score of 3-2 over the Wolverines. Sara Moulton and Tyler Walker were both named to the All-Tournament Team, and Kaitlyn Richardson was named the Tournament Most Valuable Player.
Minnesota became the fourth Big Ten team to win multiple conference tournament titles, improved to 41-9 on the season and earned an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament, sealing the school’s ninth appearance in the national tournament. It is only the second time the Gophers have won more than 40 games, with the 1999 season being the other.
Sunday night, the NCAA field of 64 teams were announced, and Minnesota found out that it was given the 16th National Seed and will host one of the sixteen four-team regionals at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium next weekend.
The first game of the Minneapolis Regional will match North Dakota State against Auburn. The Gophers will play in the second game against Green Bay. The regional is set up in a double elimination format where the losers of the first games will play in the second round of games, as will the winners of the second game. One team will advance from the regional and will move on to the Super Regional the next weekend against the winner of the Eugene Regional which contains #1 national seed Oregon. Four other Big Ten teams will join the Gophers in the NCAA Tournament: Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Northwestern.
Look for a full Minneapolis Regional Preview later this week from The Daily Gopher!