A year ago this spring, Minnesota's softball team ended the regular season on a down note by being swept at the hands of Wisconsin in a pair of close games.
The Gophers dropped to 7-8 in Big Ten play with the losses and did not make the conference tournament field. With an overall record of 37-19, the season appeared to be over.
To the team's surprise the NCAA soon came calling, however. Minnesota was not only one of the 64 teams selected to participate in the postseason tournament, it hosted Regional No. 2.
Though the Gophers wound up losing to DePaul in the regional round, the postseason experience was an asset for those returning to this year's squad. And it's a team co-head coach Lisa Bernstein fully expects to make a second-straight NCAA field.
"If we're a competitive Big Ten team and take care of business, this will be a regional team," Bernstein said. "I definitely think we have a good shot at being one of the 64 teams the selection committee takes."
One look at the Gophers' (20-10-1) early season schedule and it's hard not to think they deserve a place in the national field.
In the midst of traveling to four southern-climate tournaments since February, Minnesota has played defending NCAA champion California twice, No. 2 Arizona and No. 6 Washington. The team also did battle with then-No. 7 Cal State Fullerton on March 1 and won 1-0.
While most on the team would agree the Gophers have some work to do before being a tournament team, no one is denying that peaking late is an OK thing to do.
"I'd rather see our hits fall late in the season than in the first game of the Big Ten season," infielder Hailee Nanchy said after the Gophers scored one run in a doubleheader sweep by Iowa last weekend. "It's going to be exciting to see it all unfold. We've been working so hard for six months. When it all comes together, it will be so nice to see the smiles on everyone's face."
Minnesota is well-rounded in all areas of the game.
Pitching aces Piper Marten and Angie Recknor have climbed their way to the top of nearly every single-season team statistical category. Last season, Marten topped her own season record by fanning 301 batters and collected two perfect games in the process.
She is ready for another career year.
"I feel pretty good," Marten said. "We've already seen some stiff competition and done well. Last year, we got the breaks we needed when we needed. This year we have to put ourselves in position to not need that."
Offensively, the Gophers are in the middle of solving the riddle on how to replace leadoff specialist Tammi Hays. In her four years at Minnesota, Hays batted .345 with 151 runs scored.
The coaching staff has shuffled the lineup numerous times already this season and might have found one that works. Against Drake on Monday, power hitter Jordanne Nygren led the game off with a home run on the second pitch she faced. Veterans Veronica Roberts and Nanchy followed in the lineup, putting pressure on the big names to get the team started. The Gophers swept the Bulldogs by scores of 11-0 and 4-2.
"We're as solid as we've ever been," Bernstein said. "They all communicate and have a great deal of experience. When everyone starts to click, this is going to be a threatening team."
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