The record setting Gopher Softball season came to a grinding hault Sunday afternoon with a 1-0 loss to #16 seed Alabama. That coupled with the Crimson Tide’s 1-0 victory over Minnesota on Saturday knocked the Gophers out of the NCAA Tournament and sent Alabama forward to face #1 Florida in the NCAA Super Regionals.
As we recapped, Minnesota got their NCAA Tournament off to a flying start on Friday with an 11-3 win over the Louisiana Tech Lady Techsters. That set up a game in the winners bracket Saturday morning against Alabama Crimson Tide. The Gophers sent their ace Sara Groenewegen to the circle, while Alabama countered with their ace Alexis Osorio. It was a back and forth pitchers duel, exactly what was expected. After the regulation seven innings, the game was scoreless, the Gophers were being no-hit, and Alabama had only gotten a pair of singles. Minnesota would get their first hit of the game to start the 8th inning by Dani Wagner, and an Allie Arneson walk would give Minnesota runners on first and second with no outs. Instead of having Sam Macken bunt, which seemed like the logical play, Gopher coach Jessica Allister had her swing away and she popped out to third without advancing the runners. A groundout advanced the Gopher runners to second and third with two outs, and Alabama intentionally walked Gopher slugger Kendyl Lindaman to load the bases. Unfortunately Maddie Houlihan grounded to the first baseman to end Minnesota’s best chance at a run. The Gophers showed a bit of life in the 9th inning as well after a two out double by Groenewegen, but Wagner struck out to end the threat again.
The bottom of the ninth inning would be drama filled, but not in a positive way for Minnesota. Alabama led off the inning with an infield single, and Minnesota then played the bunt attempt by Elissa Brown perfectly getting the force at second base leaving a runner on first and one out. The Crimson Tide added another single to move the runners to first and second when Marisa Runyon stepped up to the plate. On a 1-1 pitch, Runyon acted as if she was hit by a pitch from Groenewegen and ran to first base to load the bases. However, replays clearly showed that the ball did not come near hitting Runyon. Home plate umpire Brad Newton did not recognize the mistake however and awarded Runyon the base. It was the carbon copy of a situation that happened earlier in the game to Gopher second baseman MaKenna Partain...except in that situation the Alabama bench complained and the umpire changed his call and made Partain return to the batters box where she would ground out. With the bases loaded, Groenewegen would get Alabama’s best hitter Bailey Hemphill to pop out to third base bringing up Reagan Dykes. Dykes took two straight balls before a strike to run the count to 2-1. Groenewegen’s next pitch looked like it caught the outside corner but was called a ball running the count to 3-1. Her next pitch appeared perfectly at knee height and down the middle of the plate, but Newton inexplicably called it ball four and Alabama scored the game’s only run. See a screencap of Ball 4 from the ESPN broadcast below.
With the loss, Minnesota dropped into the losers bracket and would need to play the winner of Louisiana Tech and the Albany Great Danes. Louisiana Tech would win that game, but not until after an over six hour rain delay which pushed the Gophers regularly scheduled Saturday night game into Sunday afternoon.
This time, the Lady Techsters were much more competitive. The Gophers sent freshman Amber Fiser to the circle, and she pitched five innings giving up just two hits, one of which was a solo home run by Ali Galaz to the the game at 1 in the bottom of the fourth inning after Houlihan scored on a Groenewegen single in the top of the frame. Groenewegen would come into pitch in the sixth inning for Minnesota. She would score the go ahead run in the top of the seventh on an Arneson double putting Minnesota up 2-1 going into the bottom of the seventh. Unfortunately, she couldn’t hold the lead and gave up a tying home run to Taria Page to send the game to extra innings. In the top of the ninth inning, Minnesota loaded the bases on a trio of singles setting up Lindaman. She did not falter ripping a two RBI single through the hole between third and short to put Minnesota up 4-2. A Houlihan single would add one more run, and Groenewegen set down the side in order to eliminate the Lady Techsters.
The Gophers had a half hour to recover before facing the Crimson Tide with their season on the line. Minnesota once again sent Groenewegen to the circle, while Alabama this time countered with their other star pitcher Sydney Littlejohn.
Alabama would waste no time getting to Groenewegen this time as they scored their run in the top of the first inning. Chandler Dare singled, and Runyon doubled her home up put the Tide up 1-0. Unfortunately for the Gophers it would be the only run they would need. Groenewegen was nearly perfect in the circle the remainder of the game, but the Gophers bats failed them repeatedly. Minnesota was punchless until the fourth inning when back to back singles by Danielle Parlich and Lindaman put two runners on with just one out. A fielders choice by Maddie Houlihan got Lindaman forced out at second, but Houlihan would then steal second base putting runners on second and third with two outs. Partain unfortunately could not get either of the runners in as she would ground out to first to end the inning. Minnesota’s next chance was the sixth inning when with one out Parlich singled and Lindaman walked to once again put two runners on and just one out. Alabama took Littlejohn out of the game and put in Osario who shut the Gophers down in their first matchup. But once again the ensuing result was a carbon copy of the sixth inning. Houlihan again hit into a fielders choice with the force out at second to put runners on the corners with two out. And Partain again grounded out, this time to the shortstop to end the Gopher threat. Minnesota would have one last chance in the seventh inning, but Osario shut down the Gophers in order to end their season with another 1-0 loss.
The Gophers got all the could ask for and more from Sara Groenewegen. The senior pitched 21.2 innings in the regional giving up ten hits and just three runs over four games. She struck out 27 batters and walked just 2 (including the very dubious one in the first Alabama game). Unfortunately Minnesota hit just .129 in the two losses to Alabama and left 13 runners on base.
Of course the post regional commentary has split into two factions. One faction is saying that this proves the NCAA screwed Minnesota. Two one run losses to the hope team may have looked a lot different had Minnesota been at home as they should have deserved.
The other faction is using the results to double down on the fact that Big Ten softball is terrible and that the Gophers were overrated based upon the competition they faced all season long. It proves that the committee was right in its seeding and that all the people in the first group are just whining.
In my opinion, its a mix of the two. Even with the level of competition the Gophers faced they had done enough to host a regional. But the Big Ten has a long way to go to catch up to the SEC. For as disadvantaged the Gophers were in their seeding, you have to take advantages when the opposing team gives them to you, and Alabama did give Minnesota chances to win both games. They just couldn’t come through when they needed that one big hit. You have to both credit the Alabama pitching staff for their efforts, but you can’t help but wish that Minnesota had managed game situations slightly better and did just a little more in the batters box. The loss stings, but Minnesota softball had an epic season that will forever live in the school’s record books.
The Gophers finished 56-5 overall. The 56 wins is seven more than their previous record high for wins in a season and their five losses is six less than the previous program record. Freshman Kendyl Lindaman had arguably the best offensive season ever by a Gopher player in hitting .426 with 20 home runs and 76 RBI. She set school records for home runs, RBI, and walks in a season (63).
Minnesota will miss Sara Groenwegen and Sam Macken next season, but they will return 7/9 offensive starters and their #2 and #3 pitchers on the season. They will add another freshman class they will have a few members who will be expected to contribute immediately and should once again rank at the very top of the Big Ten.
Congrats to the Gophers on a historic season, and we will be looking forward to see what this program can do it the future.