It took every game possible to reach a level that the Gopher Softball team had never reached before, but the Gophers got it done defeating Auburn in the second of two Regional Final games 8-6 and advancing to the NCAA Super Regional round of 16 for the first time in school history! Gopher freshman left fielder Sam Macken once again was the hero hitting a three run home run in the bottom of the 6th inning to take the Gophers from a 5-3 deficit to a 8-6 lead, and eventual victory.
The Gophers got started on their journey Friday evening against Green Bay. The Phoenix had won the Horizion League Championship and appeared early that they would be a threat in this tournament. That would end up not being the case. The Phoenix went up 1-0 in the first inning after a single and an error by Gopher third baseman Kaitlyn Richardson. The Gophers struck back in the third inning with RBI singles by Macken and Richardson to put the Gophers up 2-1. An RBI double by Erica Meyer stretched the lead to 3-1 after four innings. The Gophers finished off the Phoenix in the fifth when they scored seven runs highlighted by a based loaded triple by Sydney Fabian. Tyler Walker then tripled in Fabian, and Macken finished the game with a two run home run to get the Gophers over the eight run run rule threshold with a 10-1 final Sara Moulton got the win for the Gophers giving up one run on one hit, and with eight strikeouts. The Gophers would advance to the winners bracket where they would play North Dakota State who defeated Auburn earlier Friday afternoon 5-2.
The Gophers and Bison would end up playing the longest game of the tournament in the winners bracket game on Saturday. The Gophers got on the board first after loading the bases with no outs in the top of the second inning. Meyer would hit a long sacrifice fly, and Sara Groenewegen would score to make it 1-0. The Gophers couldn't get any more runs in, and the score would stay that way until NDSU would tie the game at 1-1 in the bottom of the fourth inning. After a walk, a Gopher error and an infield single tied the game, Moulton was pulled for Groenewegen, the Big Ten Freshman and Pitcher of the Year. Groenewegen would end up dominating the Bison the rest of the game, striking out the first eight batters she faced, and finishing with thirteen strikeouts in 6.1 innings pitched. The game remained 1-1 until the tenth inning, though the Gophers had chances to win the game in both the seventh and eighth innings before being shut down. Finally the Gophers broke through in the top of the tenth when Macken doubled to start the inning, and Richardson doubled her in to make it 2-1 Gophers. After a walk and a bunt single loaded the bases, Meyer singled to left to make the score 4-1. Groenewegen finished off NDSU in the bottom of the tenth, and the Gophers advanced to Sunday's Regional Final.
Later Saturday afternoon, the Phoenix would not rise again as Auburn eliminated Green Bay by a 9-1 final score. Auburn then faced NDSU again to determine who would be the Gophers opponent on Sunday. The game would remain scoreless until the Tigers would score the games only run on a double and single, and Auburn advanced with a 1-0 victory.
The Gophers would need only one victory to advance to the Super Regionals, while Auburn would need to beat Minnesota twice to advance. Once again it would take extra innings to see who would win the first game of the day. Auburn strung together a walk and two doubles to take a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the third inning. The Tigers would stretch that lead to 3-0 in the fourth with three singles. Finally in the sixth inning the Gophers bats would wake up. Tyler Walker singled, and advanced to second on a ground out, With two outs and Richardson at the plate, she hit what appeared to be an inning-ending ground out, however Auburn pitcher Lexi Davis was called for an illegal pitch, giving Richardson another chance. She took advantage, hitting her 20th double of the season down the right field line to score Walker and make it 3-1. Groenewegen was next up at the plate and she lined a 2-0 pitch over the left field pitch to tie the game at 3-3. The game would stay that way until the bottom of the eighth inning when Tiger pinch hitter Jenna Abbott took a Groenewegen pitch over the center field fence to force a second winner-take all game.
After a 30 minute break, the teams came back onto the field at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium for the second game. The winner would be off to the Super Regionals for the first time in either school's history, and the loser's season would be over. The Gophers took an early 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first after Walker singled, advanced to second on a groundout, and then third on another illegal pitch call on Davis. Walker would then score on a Taylor LeMay single up the middle. Auburn would answer back in the second combining a walk and two singles to score two runs and take the lead. After another walk, Groenewegen was pulled for Moulton who got the Gophers out of the inning. The Gophers would respond in the bottom of the inning as Meyer would single and steal second before scoring on a double by Maddie Eckstrom. Eckstrom would then score on an error by the Tigers first basemen to give the Gophers the lead once again 3-2. Auburn once again was not discouraged and in the top of the third gave a potential crushing blow to the Gophers off the bat of McKenzie Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick pinch hit for the Tigers with the bases loaded and then took a Moulton pitch out of the park for a grand slam giving Auburn a 6-3 lead which deflated the record Gopher crowd. Moulton continued to struggle, and just like in the Big Ten Championship Game, Nikki Anderson would enter the game in the circle and give the Gophers the pitching spark they would need. She would strike out four batters and give up only two hits over her 3.2 innings. Offensively the Gophers continued to claw back at the Tigers in the fourth. After a Meyer single, another Eckstrom double, and a Walker walk to load the bases, Macken would hit a sacrifice fly to score Meyer to make it 6-4. Richardson would then single to left to score Eckstrom to make it 6-5 Tigers. Both teams went quietly in the fifth inning, and after Anderson set down the top of the Auburn order in the top of the sixth inning, the dramatic scene was set once again for Macken. Bree Blanchette started off the sixth with a walk. Walker then singled for her 200th career hit to put two on with no out for Macken. Lexi Davis, who up to this point had thrown every single pitch for Auburn in the regional threw the first pitch to Macken down the heart of the plate, and the Gopher freshman took it over the fence to put Minnesota on top 8-6. Macken's home run finally knocked Davis from the game, and for the second time in just over a week made her a hero. Hilary Mavromat would enter the game for the Tigers and get out of the sixth inning, but the damage was done. Anderson gave up a two out single in the top of the seventh, but Auburn pinch hitter Maris Medina grounded out to end the game and keep the Gophers season alive.
The Gophers will advance to their first ever Super Regional in the program's history. The task will not get any harder for the Gophers to attempt to advance to the first College World Series in the school's history, as they will make the trip to Eugene, Oregon to take on the #1 National Seed Oregon Ducks. Oregon went 3-0 in its regional this weekend and finished off Gopher arch-rival Wisconsin in the regional final 6-0. The Gophers and Ducks will play a best of three-game series next weekend with the first game beginning at 9:00 PM Central Time on Saturday night. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN2.
Two other Big Ten teams will be joining the Gophers in the Super Regionals, as Michigan upset #9 Arizona State twice on Sunday to advance. They will play at #8 Florida State. Nebraska also will be in the Super Regionals as they upset #15 Missouri twice on Sunday. They are now rewarded with a trip to Tuscaloosa to play the #2 seeded Alabama Crimson Tide. Other than the Wolverines and Cornhuskers, no other unseeded teams advanced to the Super Regionals.
We will have a full Super Regional Preview later this week here on The Daily Gopher, so check back for all your information on the Ducks and Gophers!