The Gophers softball team operates a little differently than the football or men’s basketball team.
The latter two teams use their nonconference schedule to build confidence and comfort while racking up sure-wins for their postseason résumés. The football team made it more than halfway to bowl eligibility playing teams like Northern Illinois and Montana State. Men’s basketball took on teams like Eastern Washington, Southeastern Louisiana and High Point.
Softball, on the other hand, holds no punches before the Big Ten schedule starts.
The Gophers played some of the nation’s top teams in the DeMarini Invitational this weekend, including No. 5 Stanford. They lost three out of five games but aren’t sweating it.
“What we found out this weekend is that we can really play with anyone in the country,” co-head coach Lisa Bernstein said. “Of course we would’ve liked a couple more wins, but we didn’t hold back when we were putting this schedule together. This is exactly what we want.”
Of course, there are drawbacks to playing elite teams. On Friday, Stanford welcomed the Gophers to Fullerton, Calif. by putting up six runs in the first inning. Senior pitcher Briana Hassett gave up seven runs in just three innings, though only three were earned, and walked the bases loaded in the first.
Cardinals pitcher Missy Penna made easy work of the Gophers, giving up just two hits and striking out nine in the 7-0 win.
Later on Friday, the Gophers played Nevada, which was ranked in the top 20 just a week earlier, and the difference was again evident. Nevada put up three runs in the first, gave up just four hits to the Gophers and won 5-0.
“That was our toughest competition of the weekend, and probably the season,” Hassett said. “We bounced back from those games well, I think, and I still think we can hang with those teams.”
Hassett pitched back-to-back complete game shutouts on Saturday, salvaging Minnesota’s only two wins. They beat Cal State Fullerton 3-0 and the University of California-Riverside 3-0. Sunday they blew a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the seventh (the last inning in softball) to Oregon State.
Hassett’s game against Riverside was a gem, with 14 strikeouts in seven innings. She finished with a total of 35 strikeouts in 26 and two-third innings (more than nine per seven innings), increasing her lead as the Big Ten’s leading strikeout pitcher.
“She did a phenomenal job,” said sophomore infielder Malisa Barnes, who went 4-for-8 with two RBIs on Saturday. “She held down everybody. We didn’t make all the plays on defense for her, but I think she showed she can really go against some of these top teams.”
It was Minnesota’s toughest tournament of the season so far, but next weekend’s Hillenbrand Invitational in Tucson, Ariz. is even bigger.
They play the University of Arizona, the 2007 National Champions, twice. They also play Creighton, another NCAA Tournament team from last season.
“I love that we’re playing games out on the West Coast, playing against the best teams in the country,” Barnes said. “There’s no doubt that’s how you get better. Games like that have really been bringing out the best in us. I think that’ll be true next weekend, too.”
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