Photo Courtesy of Minnesota Athletics
EVANSTON, Ill. – The 15th-ranked and third seeded Minnesota softball team earned its first Big Ten Tournament title since 1999 in walk-off fashion as freshman Sam Macken drove in Erica Meyer with a two-out single in the bottom of the seventh to give the Gophers a 3-2 win over top-seeded Michigan at Sharon J. Drysdale Field in Evanston, Ill.
Minnesota, which became the fourth Big Ten team to win multiple conference tournament titles, improved to 41-9 on the season and earned an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament, sealing the school’s ninth appearance in the national tournament.
Saturday’s title game began as a pitcher’s duel that featured one hit from each team over the first four innings.
Michigan ended the scoreless stalemate in the top of the fourth inning when catcher Lauren Sweet singled home Brandi Virgil and Sierra Lawrence to give the Wolverines a 2-0 lead.
Entering the game with a 4-7 record when yielding the game’s first run, the Gophers responded quickly.
Junior third baseman Kaitlyn Richardson began the rally with leadoff home run in the bottom of the frame. Two batters later, rookie Sara Groenewegen knotted the score with a solo home run off the ivy underneath the stadium’s scoreboard in left field.
After scoreless fifth and sixth innings, Michigan’s Lyndsay Doyle hit a two-out double in the seventh, putting the potential go-ahead run in scoring position. Minnesota shortstop Tyler Walker shifted the momentum back in the Gophers’ favor, however, making a highlight-reel diving catch on a Nicole Sappingfield liner to end the inning.
Meyer got the bottom of the seventh started with a leadoff walk. Wolverine reliever Haylie Wagner retired the next two batters, bringing up the top of the Minnesota order in Walker. With the Gophers one strike away from going to extra innings for the first time all season, Meyer stole second and advanced to third on a wild pitch. Michigan then intentionally walked the hot-hitting Walker.
The steal by Meyer was the team’s only stolen base of the weekend and came on the heels of a tournament semifinal contest in which Michigan catcher Sweet threw out all three Wisconsin baserunners that attempted to swipe second base in a 4-3 Wolverine win. The wild pitch was the sixth of the season for Wagner.
With runners on the corners and a 1-2 count, Macken knocked a bouncing single to right center field to secure the championship. The hit was the first of the weekend for the Rochester, Minn. native, who entered the weekend on a seven-game hitting streak.
The championship result matched that of the game that capped Gophers’ 1999 title run, a 3-2 win over Michigan.
Minnesota’s Moulton and Tyler Walker were named to the Big Ten All-Tournament Team and Richardson was named the Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player, finishing the weekend with an .857 batting average, .889 on-base percentage, and 2.000 slugging percentage thanks in part to a pair of home runs and a pair of doubles.