It has been a bit of a lackluster season for the Gopher softball team for most of the season. The Minnesota Gophers entered the final week of the regular season with a 22-22-1 record and despite the #1 non-conference strength of schedule in the nation were most likely sitting on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. Minnesota was hosting two of the top teams in the Big Ten in the final week of the season, a home doubleheader against at that time fifth place Wisconsin Badgers, and then a three-game series against first place Northwestern Wildcats who were also ranked #6/8 in the nation headed into the weekend. It had the potential to end Minnesota’s season early if things went poorly. However, the Gophers had other plans—winning four of the five games to put themselves squarely back on the NCAA Tournament bubble as the Big Ten Tournament awaits this week.
The Gophers opened the week with a doubleheader against the Badgers on Wednesday. This series was postponed due to rain two weeks ago and moved to this week. Wisconsin entered in fifth place in the conference and appeared to have things going the right direction with the return of All-Big Ten player Kayla Konwent. Minnesota entered the weekend needing to win at least one game to guarantee their spot in the 12-team Big Ten Tournament. They took care of that right away. Minnesota would win game 1 of the doubleheader 1-0 on a combined pitching gem by Autumn Pease and Emily Levitt. The two Gopher pitchers allowed just two hits and struck out 16 Badgers in the game. Pease would strike out 10 Badgers in just 13 batters faced in four innings of work to tie her career high. Levitt entered to finish off the final three innings and would pick up the win. Chanhassen native and Wisconsin all-times win leader Maddie Schwartz was nearly as good in the other dugout. The Gophers had two early chances to score, but with two on and no outs in the second inning their chances were erased on a double play and a groundout. In the sixth inning Minnesota loaded the bases with just one out before Schwartz worked her way out of the jam with a strikeout and groundout to end the inning. The Gophers finally finished the job in the bottom of the seventh inning when Megan Dray singled and was pinch ran for by Mack Denson. She was off on the contact of a pinch hit rip down the leftfield line by Delanie Cox that fell in just past the outstretched glove of Wisconsin’s Morgan Kummer and Denson would come around to score to give the Gophers the 1-0 win in Game 1.
Game two found Levitt in the circle starting for Minnesota and she picked up right where she left off. The game was scoreless until the bottom of the third inning when the Gophers would strike first when after a inning opening single Makenna Dowell would score on a Kayla Chavez double. Minnesota would add another baserunner but could not push any other runs across in the inning, They would add one more in the fourth on a Dray solo home run and a pair in the fifth after a pair of singles and a Denson rocket off the glove of the third baseman that would score both runners making the score 4-1. Wisconsin would add one more in the 6th inning on a triple and a wild pitch, but Levitt would shut the door and finish off the Badgers for the sweep to get her 13th win on the season. She would strike out 10 on just 6 hits in the game.
Minnesota got the first sweep they needed, but Northwestern was supposed to be an even bigger test. The Wildcats needed just one win or Nebraska loss on the weekend to clinch the Big Ten title, and were ranked #6/8 in the nation. They entered with one of the best pitchers in the nation in Danielle Wiliams. But Minnesota had had success against Williams and Northwestern before heading into the weekend with a three game winning streak over the Wildcats. That trend would continue.
Minnesota wasted no time in the opener on Friday getting to Williams early and often. After not converting on a leadoff double to start the game in the first the Gophers would plate a pair in the second inning loading the bases on a single sandwiched by a pair of hit batters. The first run scored on a Sarah Kinch sac fly to left field, and then the Gophers got some help as a Northwestern throwing error on what should have been the fina out of the inning allowed a second run to score giving Minnesota a 2-0 lead. Minnesota added three more in the bottom of the third chasing Williams from the game. A single with another pair of hit batters leaded the bases again and it was Kinch getting the runners in again with some help by the Wildcats. Her single to center field was misplayed allowing all three runners to come around and score making it 5-0 Gophers after three innings.
Leavitt was dealing once again for the Gophers and got some amazing defensive help in the top of the fourth from Dowell at short.
The Gophers would add two more in the bottom of the inning on a 2RBI Sydney Strelow single, and would finish off the 8-0 run rule victory in the bottom of the 5th inning when Chloe Evans singled in Natalie Den Hartog for the final win. Levitt went all five innings allowing just three hots for the win. Williams fell to 24-3 on the season with the loss.
The two teams returned Saturday for the second game of the series after Northwestern earned the Big Ten Championship the night before when Indiana defeated Nebraska. The Wildcats looked like they had parties a bit too much the night before as Saturday was a near carbon copy of Friday. The Gophers started early at the plate and did not stop. Lauren Espalin led off the game with an absolute no doubt bomb to right center field and the Gophers jumped out 1-0 after the first inning.
Minnesota would score three more in the second and three more in the third once again to some Northwestern help. Minnesota loaded the bases with a pair of walks and then a Wildcat error before a pair of singles by Chavez and Espalinn would score three to make it 5-0. In the third Dray knocked in Den Hartog with a single and then it would be a big pinch hit single for Delanie Cox scoring two more to make it 7-0 Minnesota after three. Minnesota added one more in the fourth and finihsed off the game in the fifth after another great pitching performance by Pease and Levitt. Pease started the game and went three innings allowing just two hits and striking out four. Levitt came in for the final two innings and allowed just one hit in closing out the 6th straight win over Northwestern.
Unfortunately Minnesota’s magic ran out on Sunday’s finale. Pease gave up three runs in the opening inning to the Wildcats on a pair of walks and a home run and that would be enough. Williams was back in typical form for the Wildcats allowing Minnesota just one run and four hits in seven innings of action. The Gophers lone run came from an absolute blast off the top of the light ole in left field by Den Hartog in the fourth inning.
Minnesota got a pair of runners on in the bottom of the seventh inning after a Strelow single and Kinch double, but could not get either of them home and fell 3-1 to come clout the regular season.
Minnesota finished the regular season with a record of 26-23-1 and 11-12 in the Big Ten which was goof enough for 9th place. Minnesota’s RPI after the weekends slate of games rose to #35 putting them squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Minnesota had a tough non-conference schedule, and closed with a great finish over the Big Ten Champions, but has some bad losses on their schedule as well. It may take a win or two in the Big Ten Tournament this week for the Gophers to truly feel safe about their chances to squeeze back into the NCAA Tournament. Luckily for the Gophers, the Big Ten Tournament bracket shapes up about as well as you could hope.
The #9 seeded Gophers will open up BTT play against #8 seed Wisconsin at 3:30 on Wednesday in East Lansing. Minnesota if you read to this point in the article you know the Gophers wept the Badgers last week in Minneapolis. The winner of that game advances to Thursday’s quarterfinal to face #1 seed Northwestern. You know how the Gophers did against the Wildcats this season.
Wednesday’s game against the Badgers would be a potential NCAA play-in game of sorts. Wisconsin was in the tournament as of the last bracketology a week ago but has lost five in a row. They need Wednesday’s game against the Gophers as much as Minnesota does. It’s a fairly good guess that the loser of that game is probably done for the season, while the winner has a decent chance at a bubble spot. Hopefully Minnesota can continue their hot streak and do what they need to do and keep their season alive for one more week!