Gophers softball: Big Ten race going down to the wire
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Gophers softball team enters the final two weeks of the regular season in a familiar position, firmly in contention for a Big Ten title.
Minnesota is in search of its second regular-season conference title in the past three years after not previously winning the Big Ten since 1991.
The Gophers enter this weekend’s home series against Iowa (18-24, 4-13 Big Ten) — which starts with a doubleheader Friday — with a 15-1 record in conference play, which somehow has them third in the conference standings, a half-game back of Michigan (16-1) and a game and a half behind Northwestern (17-0).
Near perfection will be required to win the conference this season.
“Big Ten softball is intense,” Minnesota junior infielder Makenna Partain said. “Honestly, it comes down to every single game, every single pitch, every single run. It does. I think it’s just important to realize that we’ve done really well this year and we’ve been successful up to this point, but we still have these next two weekends, which are huge for us in the standings and even further on into postseason.”
The Gophers will have a chance to catch first-place Northwestern. Minnesota plays the Wildcats in a three-game series at home next weekend that could determine the conference title. But first, the Gophers know they must take care of business against Iowa.
“We can’t slip up. We know that for sure, and we’re not taking Iowa lightly whatsoever,” Partain said. “They’re a team that could easily come back and take one away from us, and that’s not something we’re looking to do. So we have to look at them and go right at them, honestly.”
As for Michigan, the Gophers simply must hope the Wolverines slip up.
The Big Ten’s unbalanced schedule again didn’t put Minnesota against Michigan this spring. The Wolverines somehow didn’t have Minnesota or Northwestern on their schedule.
Partain admits she would prefer to play Michigan during the regular season, but Minnesota isn’t focusing on that at this point. Gophers coach Jamie Trachsel still believes her team has control of its destiny, and noted the Gophers shouldn’t have lost to Illinois earlier this month.
“You only can control what you can control, which is your play and your opponents,” Trachsel said. “Everyone else is taking care of their own business, too. We’re just focused on Minnesota softball and what’s in front of us and who we’re playing and how we’re playing and what adjustments we need to make to keep getting better so we can play our best when it matters the most, and that’s just around the corner.”
The fact that there is so much competition for the Big Ten crown this season is beneficial for all involved.
Three Big Ten teams currently rank in the top 13 nationally: Northwestern is 10th, Minnesota 11th and Michigan 13th. That figures to bode well for everyone when it comes time to seed the NCAA tournament.
Not only are Big Ten titles — the regular-season and tournament crowns — up for grabs over these next few weeks, but a home regional also appears to be within reach.
“The Big Ten is getting stronger. It’s one of the best overall RPI seasons I think in recent years, and that helps every team in our conference, not just Minnesota,” Trachsel said. “There’s a couple of teams that are vying for championships, that are competing for championships and are challenging to host a regional, and that’s awesome.”