Feb. 3, 2013
MINNEAPOLIS - With the start to its season now less than a week away, the University of Minnesota softball team has been practicing this weekend inside the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.
Third-year head coach Jessica Allister took her team through drills at the Metrodome on Saturday morning from 9:30 to Noon, and once again on Sunday morning. The Gophers will hold a third practice at the facility on Monday, as they prepare for their season-opening tournament next weekend, Feb. 9-10.
Minnesota will play four games at UNLV's Sportco Kick-Off Classic in Las Vegas, Nev. The Golden Gophers open their season versus DePaul on Saturday at 1:15 p.m. CT, followed by a 5:45 p.m. game against Texas Tech. On Sunday, Minnesota will play No. 18/18 Louisville at 12:15 p.m., before wrapping up the tournament against the host Rebels at 2:30 p.m.
Last year, Minnesota opened its season at the same tournament, going 3-1 against Kent State, UNLV, Weber State and Cal State Bakersfield. This year's field is more formidable, as DePaul (36-22 in 2012), Texas Tech (41-17), and Louisville (55-5) all qualified for the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
The Gophers enter the season with confidence after finishing 31-22 with a starting lineup that consisted mostly of underclassmen in 2012. Minnesota is still young, with 13 of 18 players on the roster being freshmen or sophomores, but the experience gained in 2012 should prove to be an asset.
Minnesota showed it can compete with any team in the country by going 9-5 last year against teams that qualified for NCAA Regional play. The Gophers won two of three against Big Ten champion Michigan, but were 1-5 against two teams that finished behind them in the conference standings - Illinois (1-2) and Penn State (0-3).
The Gophers return nine of 10 starters, led by a pair of Third-Team All-Big Ten selections in junior pitcher Sara Moulton and sophomore infielder Tyler Walker.
Moulton was 25-14 with a 1.52 earned run average and 302 strikeouts for the Gophers in 2012. Nationally, only eight returning starting pitchers had more strikeouts than the Gophers' right-hander, and she led all Big Ten hurlers in K's. Additionally, Moulton's ERA ranked 26th
nationally and first in the conference, and is the 14th
-best returning ERA this season.
Walker batted .380 with 46 runs scored, 29 runs batted in, nine home runs, nine doubles, a .614 slugging percentage and 16 stolen bases during her outstanding freshman season with the Gophers.
But it's not just about those two players for Minnesota. The Gophers' depth and versatility will allow Coach Allister to use multiple lineups and to feel comfortable with a large number of players, whether in the starting lineup or coming off the bench.
Moulton's pitching will be backed up by an offense that put up historic numbers, and a defense that led the Big Ten with a .970 fielding percentage last season.
Minnesota players combined to hit 53 home runs last year, and 52 of those round-trippers (98.1 percent) were hit by players who return for 2013. Only one team, Arkansas (98.3 percent), has a higher percentage of home runs hit by returning players.
Over the past two seasons, the Gophers have combined to hit 77 home runs, which is the most over a two-year span in the program's history. Senior catcher Kari Dorle and freshman infielder Kaitlyn Richardson each hit 10 home runs in 2012, becoming the first Minnesota duo with double-digit HR totals since 1999, but a total of eight players had at least three home runs.
Minnesota scored 264 runs in just 53 games last season, its highest total since tallying 276 runs in 68 games during 1999. The Gophers' average of 4.98 runs scored per game was their best since the 1996 team averaged 5.29 runs per game. In addition, Minnesota's team slugging percentage of .436 was its best since having a .445 slugging percentage during that 1996 season.
Richardson is coming off a freshman campaign in which she batted .338 with 39 runs scored, 38 runs batted in, 16 doubles, and 10 home runs. Meanwhile, Dorle led the team with 47 RBI to rank 53rd nationally with 0.89 per game. Dorle (89 career RBI) and senior Alex Davis (79) both have a chance to move into Minnesota's top five for career runs batted in.
It all starts next Saturday, when the Gophers take the field for their season debut in Las Vegas for the second year in a row.