Unseeded, Gopher softball No. 1 in the country

Published 7:33 am Wednesday, May 17, 2017

By Jace Frederick

Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

For the first time in program history, the Gophers softball team is No. 1 in the nation.

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Depending on who you ask.

Two days after the selection committee decided Minnesota’s 114th-ranked strength of schedule rendered the Gophers’ nation-best 54-3 record and 25-game winning streak essentially moot, the National Fastpitch Coaches Association deemed the Gophers to be the top team in the land, placing Minnesota on the top line of the USA Today/NFCA top 25 rankings.

On Sunday, the NCAA selection committee passed over the Gophers for one of the top 16 seeds in the NCAA tournament and the home regional that comes with it.

The Gophers received 18 of 32 first-place votes and were ranked just ahead of Florida and Oregon. Minnesota started the season ranked 16th in the poll. This is the first season in which the Gophers cracked the top 10.

“I thought it was awesome,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said of Minnesota’s top ranking. “In these years since (coach Jessica) Allister showed up I’ve seen them do nothing but (grow). Their curve is just going straight up.”

Neither Allister nor members of the team were available Tuesday as they prepared to leave for postseason play in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The Gophers open the tournament against Louisiana Tech (37-22) at 1:30 p.m. Friday. The game will be televised on ESPNU.

The Gophers rank in the top five nationally in earned-run average, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and runs scored per game. They went 16-0 at home this year and were 18-0 at neutral sites. Minnesota’s last loss was April 1, and two of their three defeats were by one run.

The Gophers possess one of college softball’s top pitchers in senior Sara Groenewegen, whose 0.59 ERA is good for third in the nation. Her 280 strikeouts rank ninth. Freshman catcher Kendyl Lindaman is one of the most dangerous players at the plate, ranking sixth in the country with 20 home runs, third in slugging percentage (.942) and tied for fourth in walks (60).

Minnesota swept the Big Ten’s major awards, with Groenewegen winning Pitcher of the Year, Lindaman taking Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year, and Allister honored as Coach of the Year.

The eye test suggested Minnesota was one of the nation’s top teams this year, if not the best. The country’s coaches thought so, anyway.

But maybe it was all a mirage, with the gaudy statistics and historic win count distorted by a lack of top-tier competition.

They’ll have an opportunity to debunk that theory over the next two weeks.

Should Minnesota survive the road regional, it likely will be rewarded with a Super Regional date against top-seeded Florida (50-6), the previous top-ranked team in the nation.
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