Monday, December 26, 2016

Minnesota Profile: Gophers Still Searching for Identity as Perennial Title Contenders

General Overview/2016 Recap: Coming into a season where many saw them as a potential contending underdog, the Gophers began 2016 on a melancholy note, going 3-2 in the Sportco Kickoff Classic in Las Vegas. A horribly lopsided 13-2 loss to Long Beach State cast some doubts as to the Gophers' contending abilities, though a victory over eventual national champion Oklahoma proved just as sparkling of a testament.

Sara Groenewegen looks for her
third-consecutive All-American award
in 2017/Photo: Minnesota Athletics
The Gophers were placed in the Tallahassee wing of the B1G/ACC challenge and bested Virginia Tech in both matchups, but took close losses in back-to-back games against Florida State.

The FSU losses were followed by a six-game winning streak that included a dominant victory over Arizona State and two wins over Houston. 

The Gophers split two games with future WCWS participant Georgia at the Athens-hosted tournament, but the Florida Atlantic-hosted tournament did not prove as fruitful; losses to Robert Morris and Mercer left a sour note that overpowered what would otherwise have been an impressive victory over FAU and their ace Kylee Hanson.

Up and down the Gophers' season continued, including a loss to Tulsa, followed by an extra-inning victory over Oklahoma, followed by another loss to Tulsa, this time by run-rule.

Jessica Allister's squad lost just one conference series, a doubleheader against Wisconsin. Outside of a series win over Northwestern, the remainder of the Gophers' conference schedule were all chalked up in the win column, with sweeps coming over Purdue, Illinois, Rutgers, Nebraska, Maryland, and Iowa.

Though the regular season did not include a matchup against perennial champion Michigan, the Gophers found themselves face-to-face with the Wolverines in the B1G championship game and got the better of their top-level foes, winning 4-3 in ten innings.

The Gophers were placed in the Seattle regional, hosted by the Washington Huskies; two victories over North Dakota State couldn't get the Gophers to the next round, as two losses to the hosting Huskies sealed the fate of the ladies from the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Around the Horn in 2016: (reflects departed players)
P - Sara Groenewegen; (Nikki Anderson)
C - (Taylor LeMay)
1B - Maddie Houlihan
2B - Danielle Parlich
3B - Sam Macken
SS - Dani Wagner
LF - (Kayla Wenner)
CF - (Paige Palkovich)
RF - (Sydney Fabian)
DP - Sydney Dwyer

Carrying the Clipboards: 
Jessica Allister has gone from one of the hottest commodities on the market to a rising star in the coaching profession and one of the best in the game. Though her Gophers haven't turned themselves into perennial national championship contenders quite yet, it's under Allister's watch that they've advanced, and permanently, to the sport's top tier and now are *the* team that stands in the way of Michigan being defacto champions year-in and year-out. 

Former Golden Gopher pitcher Piper Ritter has spent nearly a decade tutoring the hurlers who followed in her stead. It was under her guidance that Sara Moulton and Sara Groenewegen have both earned all-American status, Ritter, yet another quietly-successful 'homegrown' coaching talent, helped tutor Moulton to four consecutive all-Big Ten honors, as well as leaving her name atop no fewer than even program records at graduation. Groenewegen has become one of the country's top in the circle during her first three seasons, including earning both conference Pitcher and Player of the Year honors.

Maddie Houlihan looks to build on
a stellar freshman campaign in 2016.
Photo: Minnesota Athletics
A former Michigan Wolverine player now on the other side of the the newly-minted bitter softball rivalry, Merchant saw a lot of development in the Gopher infield a season ago, and it's her group around the diamond that should be the most dominant part of the squad's lineup in 2017. Rookie first baseman Maddie Houlihan earned conference Freshman of the Year honors, as well as a nod to the All-Big Ten first team and a Great Lakes all-Region nomination.

Additions: The Gophers' biggest addition of the offseason is undoubtedly Tori Finucane, a senior pitcher transferred from Missouri. She's joined in the transfer department by former Virginia Cavalier Allie Arneson; Arneson hit .268 as the Caveliers' starting shortstop in 2016. They are joined as newcomers by in-state freshmen Carlie Brandt and Katelyn Kemmetmueller, in addition to other freshmen Kendal Judge; MaKenna Partain; Kendyl Lindaman; Kaylen Krueger; and Amber Fiser.

Subtractions: A mainstay senior class departed the Gopher program, including the entire starting outfield and catcher and Taylor LeMay. Kayla Wenner, she of the breakout .351 batting average in her senior season, and LeMay will both be severely missed on the offensive side of the ball, while LeMay's defense will be extremely difficult to replace.

The Gophers will kick off 2017 in Austin, Texas, where they'll face off in two games a piece with Texas and Maryland, as well as a one-game tilt against Colorado State.

Notre Dame and North Carolina State are the Gophers' opponents for the Big Ten/ACC challenge, a series that'll take place in Raleigh with NC State hosting.

After the Fresno State tournament, the Gophers will head to Baton Rouge, a tournament that will include matchups against Florida Atlantic and LSU, among others.

Allister's club will match up against four PAC-12 opponents through the remainder of the non-conference season, including two games against Washington and a single-game tilt against California and Oregon State, respectively.

In conference play, the Gophers will travel to Nebraska; Illinois; Wisconsin; and Penn State, while they'll host Indiana; Northwestern; Iowa; and Purdue. 

Mid-season, non-conference, regional tilts against North Dakota State and South Dakota also dot the schedule.

The Gophers will have to go into hostile territory to defend their conference tournament title, as the Big Ten tournament will be hosted in Ann Arbor in 2017. 

Potential Strengths/Weaknesses ---
Strengths - Finucane's addition will leave the Gophers pitching staff as one of the best in the conference, at the very least; she provides a capable and battle-tested second to Groenewegen's top dog. That's a 1-2 punch that may give the Gophers an even better shot at reigning supreme in the B1G. Allie Arneson, a transfer-in herself, could give the program a boost in the batting order after losing LeMay, Wenner, and others.

Weaknesses - The Gophers have climbed in the national rankings in recent years, consistently under Allister, but often seem to hit a bit of a wall that keeps them from reaching the very pinnacle. They need to pounce now with Groenewegen in her final season of eligibility, or risk wasting a golden opportunity (no pun intended). They need to be more consistent in winning the games they have to win in the non-conference schedule.

Outlook for 2017: The Gophers again do not play Michigan in the regular season, and while the Nebraska and Penn State away series', for example, will not be cakewalks, the Gophers' conference series is most definitely a winnable one... should they take advantage of the opportunity. If they can do just that, and with the talent level in Minneapolis, this might just be the year the Gophers challenge for a deep postseason berth.

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