Full of promise, Big Ten play begins

Under new head coach Jessica Allister, the Gophers have already won more games this season than they did a year ago.
March 24, 2011

After more than two months of tournaments, the Minnesota softball team ships off to Bloomington, Ind., for its first game of the Big Ten season.

Indiana swept the Gophers last year, but this is a different Minnesota team that is on pace to improve its overall record by over 10 games this season.

“It’ll be fun to get out there against Indiana,” head coach Jessica Allister said. “The Big Ten’s a great softball conference.”

Allister’s not just being partial to the Big Ten, either. After tournament play, the conference has only one team with a losing record, and more than half the teams have a winning percentage over .600.

The Gophers come into their first Big Ten game with a 17-13 record, which places them eighth overall in the talented conference. Minnesota has won 11 of its last 17 games, one of them a 1-0 victory against No. 18 Oklahoma State.

A big reason for the Gophers’ success this year has been the progression of sophomore catcher Kari Dorle. After finishing her freshman year with a .153 average and one home run, Dorle has broken out this year, leading the team with six long balls and pushing her average up to .333.

“All my credit goes to the coaches,” Dorle said. “Whether it’s defense or whether it’s hitting, we’re always working on something consistently to improve me.”

Much like Dorle, the Gophers have made a sizeable improvement from last season. After a 16-37 season, which included a last place finish in the Big Ten, Minnesota is thriving under a new coaching staff.

“The biggest thing we have going right now is that we’re getting better every time we step on the field,” former All-American and assistant coach Jessica Merchant said. Merchant knows a thing or two about success in collegiate softball, as she was a captain for Michigan when it won the national title in 2006. Since then, she spent four years as an assistant coach at Massachusetts — making the NCAA tournament every season — before landing with the Gophers.

Despite her past success, Merchant has followed the one-game-at-a-time mantra that Allister has instilled in the program. When asked about whether this team has a shot to make the NCAA tournament, she said that “all we’re going to worry about is our next game, and our next opponent is Indiana.” It’s an approach that has the team on pace to grab its first winning record since 2008.

As for its first Big Ten opponent, Minnesota will be facing an 18-12 Indiana team that has won six in a row, but has also played at home throughout the streak, something the Gophers have yet to do this season.

“It is a lot of travel, but it’s nothing that they aren’t used to,” Allister said about the team’s 32 road games to begin the year. “It’s part of playing softball in Minnesota.”

Allister likely hopes that Big Ten success also becomes a part of Minnesota softball, as the team has compiled a dismal 28-68 record in conference play since 2005. The new coaching staff will have its first chance to turn around the program on Saturday against the Hoosiers, a team that outscored the Gophers 9-3 in two games in Minnesota last year.

“It’s the most exciting part of the year,” Merchant said about conference play. “You’re able to compete against the best teams, and we’re really looking forward to the challenge.”

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