This week I had a chance to interview softball legend Jennie Finch. Finch was a three-time All-American pitcher and first baseman who led the University of Arizona Wildcats to a Women's College World Series championship in 2001. She also played on the USA national softball team, leading Team USA to a gold medal at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games and a silver medal at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. You may also know her from her several appearances in the MLB Celebrity All-Star Game during All-Star weekend where she had has several memorable moments including this one:
Jennie talked to us about her association with the Capital One Cup, the NCAA Women's College World Series, the success of the Gopher Softball Team, and how the Gophers would fair against her Wildcats in the NCAA Softball Regional in Tucson this weekend.
TDG: Can you give us a bit of an idea what your role is in your association with the Capital One Cup?
JF: I'm on the Athlete Advisory Board for the Capital One Cup, and I am excited and honored to be a partner with Capital One. I think the thing that stands out the most is that they are shining a light on things that don't always get out in the limelight, especially on the women's side, and are not only honoring the top collegiate athletic programs in the country, but also award $200,000 to each school's men's and women's student athlete scholarship fund. So its an honor to still have my fingerprint in the collegiate athletic arena, and still follow college sports, and of course softball as well, and I am looking forward to be back at the College World Series with Capital One. The race (for the cup) is going to be exciting.
TDG: It definitely is, our Gophers are currently 19th in the Women's standings thanks to our Hockey team winning the national championship. Why do you feel it is so important to honor these schools for their athletic successes all across the board, and not just for the bigger sports such as basketball and football?
JF: Its an extreme honor for a school to be even in the top ten of the Capital One Cup, because it says so much about your school showing that you don't just dominate one sport, but when you put them together it can build so much more pride towards your school and your program. Of course college fans are always looking for extra bragging rights, so this can give that to them as well. It's fun to be able to follow both the women's and men's side to see who is the most successful and why, and see what sports are able to catapult them to the top.
TDG: Lets focus in on softball if we can. Obviously the University of Minnesota had a great regular season, finishing second in the Big Ten behind perennial power Michigan. The Gophers are led by Sara Groenewegen, who is a Top Ten Finalist for the National Player of the Year, who just like you back in college is a great two-way player who had success both in the circle and at the plate. Do you think that success at one of those spots can lead to you having success at the other one as well, or are they more independent of each other?
JF: It only kind of depended to me. I think I learned, and it was always my goal to play well at both sides. I wanted to be able to help my team on the mound and then with my bat as well. When I was in the dugout I was always thinking about what I was doing defensively, but then I get to get a break and to try and go do some damage with the bat as well. A lot of times when I didn't quite have it on the mound, I was like,"Man, I can still contribute at the plate!", which was a big relief.
TDG: Do you think that you need to change your mentality for the NCAA Tournament, or do you just need to continue what you have been doing in the regular season that got you there?
JF: I think the latter, and I think its the work done in the fall and leading up to the season that all comes together at this moment and time. You have been doing something that has brought you success, and you are in the playoffs because you have been doing some thing right. A lot has to do about that team is firing at the right time, and it all starts in the circle. I think you guys have a great one in Sara, and then defense and timely hitting are all huge. Its all about who is hot, and is hot at the right time, and the right time is now. Our sport is so exciting and you see it week in and week out in all the conferences that on any given day any team can win. I think being a Division I athlete in this day and age, you know that if you can make it into the field, you have as good a chance as any to win as your opponent. It's about putting your best foot forward, and you never know, the next pitch could make all the difference.
TDG: As much as we would like to see Minnesota advance out of the regional to the Super Regional and the College World Series, they have a tough road ahead of them. Who are some of the teams you see as the favorites to make it to Oklahoma City and the College World Series right now?
JF: The offensive explosion within our game makes it really interesting. You have to watch every game all the way through because you don't know what could happen. How the year has gone, I would say either Florida or Oregon. The Gators have been there, they won it last year. You have that target on your back and everyone is going to want to beat you that much more. its going to be tough to repeat for them, but I think they have what it takes. Oregon on the other hand has Cheridan Hawkins, probably the best pitcher in the country, but also have the hitting and offensive numbers behind her--I don't think anyone is hitting under .300 on their squad, they are having offensively an incredible year as well. Its up for grabs, but it is going to be exciting.
TDG: The Gophers ran into the buzzsaw that was the Ducks last season in Eugene as Oregon ended Minnesota's season, so we know how tough they can be.
JF: Yes, but you guys battled tough. I think coming off of last season with the success Minnesota had off Oregon, that was a huge start, those players now have the experience of playing on that stage against a team that was ranked #1 in the country, its just another notch on Minnesota's belt proving that they are a national contender, and they are working their way up which is an exciting thing for the Gophers and their fans, and that experience should help them heading into the regional this weekend.
TDG: We have seen how good the Gophers can be with one great starting pitcher in Sara Groenewegen, but do you think at this point in the season having two star pitchers is key, or can one shoulder the load the rest of the way.
JF: Two pitchers is nice, I think you can have one carry you through, but if you look at the stats, not too many pitchers are throwing a ton of complete games anymore, so having a staff is huge I think. If you can have one pitcher go through the lineup twice and then bring someone else and have your team get up a bit, it can be a plus. But if you have that one ace, she can definitely lead the way. (Note: Groenewegen has 25 complete game in 34 starts with 5 relief appearances in 2015)
TDG: The Gophers definitely do not have an easy task this weekend since they faltered in the Big Ten Tournament and lost their chance at a potential home regional. Instead they will have to travel to Tuscon and get past your Arizona Wildcats to move onto the Super Regionals. I'm sure you are slightly biased a bit, but do you think the Gophers have what it takes to get past your Wildcats to advance?
JF: Strangely enough my Arizona team went to Minnesota my senior year of college for the NCAA Regionals (Arizona went 3-0 and never played the Gophers to advance to the College World Series)--it was the first year that Arizona did not host a regional in I don't know how many years. This years Wildcats are a tough team. Offensively they are unreal. And when we say a pitching staff, they definitely have that. They will be switching them in and out very quickly, they will definitely have short leashes on them. But I''m hoping their pitching can carry them...we know the offense will be there, its just a question if the pitching can hold up.
TDG: One last question--You were here in the Twin Cities last July for the MLB All-Star Game. It seems like you really have a lot of fun participating in the Celebrity game as much as you can. Do you have any memories of the Twin Cities that really stand out?
JF: Its beautiful. I love it...I love the accents. My parents were born and raised in Iowa and my two brothers were born in Iowa before my family moved to California where I was born so I still really feel like I have those Midwestern roots. So it kind of makes me feel at home. We always have great crowds in Minnesota and see so many families coming out that it really makes my heart happy.
TDG: Thanks for speaking with us, we appreciate it and we will look forward to seeing you involved with the College World Series over the next few weeks.
JF: Thanks and good luck. But not too much luck.