The Gopher softball team will begin their quest to advance further than any other softball team in school history this weekend when they host the Minneapolis Regional at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium. The Gophers will be joined with Green Bay, Auburn and North Dakota State in a double elimination tournament format. One team will advance to the NCAA Super Regionals next weekend where they will play the winner of the Eugene regional that includes #1 national seed Oregon in a best of three series to advance to the NCAA College World Series.
The Gophers enter the NCAA Tournament ranked #14/16 in the country with their best winning percentage in school history at 0.820 with a record of 41-9. They have hit the 40 win plateau for the first time since their last Big Ten Tournament Championship in 1999. That year the Gophers won their first two regional games at a regional held at UCLA, but then lost next two games to UCLA and Missouri to end their season. The Gophers have an overall NCAA Tournament record of 7-12. The Gophers last hosted a regional in 2002. That year, Minnesota defeated Princeton before suffering two-straight losses to DePaul. Last spring, the Gophers qualified for a regional for the first time since 2003 when it was selected to play in Seattle. There, the Gophers notched one win over Portland State between two losses to Hawaii.
Leading the Gophers into the NCAA Tournament will be several players who are ranked highly on a national level, much less Big Ten level. Kaitlyn Richardson is ranked sixth in the nation in on-base percentage at .559 while Sara Moulton’s 12 shutouts rank her fifth. Sara Groenewegen’s clip of 11.4 strikeouts per inning ranks her fourth. The Gophers will need to get strong performances from all three players this weekend. Richardson is coming off of an amazing Big Ten Tournament where she was named the MVP. Moulton holds most of the Gophers all-time pitching records, while Gronenwegen was named the Big Ten Freshman and Pitcher of the Year.
The Gophers will also need to keep their power surge flowing at home this weekend. Their 63 home runs are the most the team has ever hit and their .508 slugging percentage is their highest ever and ranks them second in the Big Ten. Taylor LeMay leads the team with 11 home runs, while Groenewegen , Richardson and Tyler Walker have are also in double digits with 10 apiece. Richardson is tied for the the third-most doubles in school history with 18 this season and has the program’s best-ever slugging percentage at .791. Walker has the Gophers’ second-best slugging percentage of all-time at .747.
The Gophers appear to be primed to advance to the Super Regionals for the first time in school history, but it will not be an easy task. Green Bay, Auburn and North Dakota State all will be looking to knock of the home squad.
The Gophers’ first-round opponent at 6:30 Friday will be Green Bay. The Phoenix reached the tournament via winning the Horizon League Tournament. The Phoenix are 27-12 on the season, but went 0-3 against Big Ten schools. Their leading players on offense are Shannon Butts who leads the squad with a .412 average and Marissa Michalkiewicz who has a team best 37 RBI. They use several pitchers, but the Gophers will most likely see Ashely Nannemann, who has the most innings pitched than anyone else on the team, going 11-7 with a 1.94 ERA.
The first game Friday afternoon at 4:00 will pit Auburn and North Dakota State. Auburn enters the weekend as the region’s second-highest rated team in the RPI at No. 17, one spot behind the Gophers. If the Gophers are the #16 National seed, Auburn is likely the # 17. The nationally ranked No. 21/22 Tigers come into the weekend with a 39-17-1 record. They will most likely will be the Gophers toughest opponent this weekend. Auburn went a combined 3-6 against SEC teams the Gophers played this season, while Minnesota went 3-1 with two wins over South Carolina, one over LSU, and a loss to Florida. Auburn boasts three hitters with batting averages of over .400 in Branndi Melero (.411), Kasey Cooper (.410), and Emily Carosone (.408). Cooper also has 15 home runs and a team-best 76 RBI. She will be a key out to get for opponents this weekend. Auburn's leading pitcher, Lexi Davis paced the Tigers with a 2.78 ERA, and a 20-10 record.
North Dakota State comes in to the weekend with a 35-16 record after getting hot at the end of the season and winning its last five games to capture the Summit League title. Alex Sobrero leads the Bison with a .394 average, while .336 hitter Amanda Grable has a team-best nine home runs and 45 RBI. Krista Menke has done the bulk of the pitching, tossing 229.1 innings for a 20-7 record and a 2.04 ERA.
The Gophers did not play any of the Minneapolis Regional teams this season. The Gophers were due to play NDSU, but their doubleheader was rained out. The Gophers and Green Bay split a doubleheader on April 11, 2012. The Gophers have an all-time record of 33-3 against the Phoenix. The last time the Gophers played NDSU they swept a doubleheader on April 18, 2012. The Gophers have an all-time record of 19-1 against the Bison. Minnesota is 2-1 all-time against Auburn. The Gophers last played the Tigers in the War Eagle Classic March 2, 2013, winning 4-3.
The games start Friday evening at 4:00 with NDSU and Auburn playing. The Gophers will take on Green Bay at 6:30. Th two winners of the first games will play at 1:30 Saturday afternoon, with the two losers playing at 4:00. The loser of that game will be eliminated. The winner will advance to play the loser of the game between the two day one winners at 6:30 Saturday. The winner of the game will advance to Sunday's Championship Round. The remaining undefeated team, and the winner of the last game on Saturday will play at 1:30. If the undefeated team wins, they will advance to the Super Regional. If the undefeated team loses, the two teams will play one more game at 4:00 and the winner will advance to the Super Regionals. The Friday and Saturday games will be streamed on Gopher All-Access. The Gophers will also have a live blog for the Gopher games here. If the Gophers advance to play in Sunday's Championship Round, one or both games if necessary will be broadcast live on the BTN.