Gophers host Northwestern with Big Ten title at stake

Jane Sage Cowles Stadium might feel more like an NCAA Super Regional site for the University of Minnesota softball team this weekend as it hosts Northwestern starting Friday for a three-game series.

The Big Ten regular season title is at stake for both teams. The Gophers have won 11 straight games, are 18-1 in the Big Ten and host the Wildcats, who are unbeaten in conference play. Both teams will also have an eye on Michigan, who is 19-1 and has a series against Maryland.

Minnesota’s most likely scenario to win a Big Ten regular season title is to sweep Northwestern, and hope Michigan loses one of its three to Maryland. All three teams are playing for seeding for next week’s Big Ten Tournament in Indiana.

“It’s what you work for. It’s why you make the sacrifices and the decisions on some of those weekends, and it’s why you come to college,” Gophers coach Jamie Trachsel said. “We’ve been successful enough to put ourselves in a positon where we get to play for something each and every weekend here on out.”

Minnesota and Northwestern have a history of playing big softball games. The Gophers beat the Wildcats last year 9-6 in the Big Ten Tournament title game.

The winner of this weekend’s series could very well be hosting an NCAA Tournament regional in a few weeks. That’s great to think about, but the Gophers have to beat Northwestern for it to matter.

“Keep your mind in between the lines. We try to not care as a team, and we’re going to play our game. It’s awesome to play in front of a great crowd and be at home and we’re super excited about that, but we do our job and let the other things take care of themselves,” freshman Natalie Denhartog said.

Denhartog is in the heart of a batting order that features both balance and power. She’s tied for the team lead with Hope Brandner as they each have 15 home runs on the season. Denhartog is hitting .404 for the season and leads the Gophers with 57 RBI.

Minnesota’s 59 homers as a team leads the Big Ten. The Gophers have four players hitting over .300, and two hitting over .400.

The Gophers also have some standouts on the mound, led by junior Amber Fiser. She’s 23-6 in 30 starts with a 1.32 ERA, including 256 strikeouts with just 50 walks in 185 2/3 innings. The Gophers lead the Big Ten in team ERA, and are top 10 in the country in fielding percentage.

It’s a recipe that they hope leads to a championship.

“When she has the ball, we feel like we have a chance to win any game no matter who we’re playing. Then it’s our job to do our job,” Trachsel said. “For the Secret Service, serve, protect and defend the President. (For Amber)… To give our offense a chance to be able to come through, put runs on the board and be just plus-1 at the end of the day.”

Sellout crowds are expected at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium for all three games this weekend. Both teams couldn’t be playing much better than they are, which should make for an electric atmosphere with so much at stake for the Gophers and Wildcats.

Minnesota (37-10) is 8-0 at home this season. Its last eight wins have come by a combined score of 61-12. Northwestern hasn’t lost a Big Ten game yet, and has won 19 straight.

“It’s going to be a fun atmosphere. I think there’s going to be a lot of Minnesota fans, there’s going to be a lot of Northwestern fans and we’re just going to be two teams battling it out for the conference,” Fiser said.

With a series win over Northwestern and a run in the Big Ten Tournament, the Gophers are looking at making a deep NCAA Tournament run. They’ve won three straight Big Ten Tournament titles, and they feel as confident as ever after playing the toughest non-conference schedule in the country.

Minnesota enters the final regular season series ranked No. 10 in the RPI. Northwestern is No. 11. The Gophers’ early non-conference schedule included seven of the top 15 teams in the country. The Gophers are currently ranked No. 13 nationally in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches Poll.

“That’s what it was built for. It was built to put us in a good position to compete for championships, potentially host a regional tournament and it’s our job to make sure that we’re using all of our experiences up to this point to continue to build our team and build our players for what they’re capable of doing with what’s in front of us,” Trachsel said.

They’ve won big games before. Now it’s a matter of doing it with the season on the line.