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In the structure of women’s collegiate softball, the differences from Divison I to Division II to Division III is pretty easily discerned. In Minnesota, we’re well aware of it, especially in a season like this, when the University of Minnesota has a legitimate chance to make a run at the NCAA D-I title.
UMD, meanwhile, is invariably a strong presence in Division II, although the Bulldogs have struggled a bit at the end of this season, and could use some pitching performances at the top of their game when they open the Northern Sun Conference tournament at Sioux Falls, against Sioux Falls.
The tournament is double elimination, so the Bulldogs will get a chance to get their act together. The toughest part of UMD’s season was never getting its field ready to use, and making the best of it all by playing on the makeshift field laid out on the northwest corner of Malosky Stadium’s football turf.
Last Sunday, the showdown came against Augustana. Winona was in first place, and UMD second, but only an eyelash ahead of Augustana. UMD jumped ahead 1-0 in the first game, but then the bats went silent. Augustana pitched and hit and UMD’s defense - which made a dozen diving stabs for great plays - couldn’t prevent a 4-1 Augustana victory.
The Bulldogs could still have claimed second place by winning the second game, but after being frustrated on only two hits in the first game, UMD watched Augustana jump ahead 3-0 in the top of the first of the second game, and the Bulldog bats went silent, with only two hits in a 5-1 loss.
The true significance of the doubleheader sweep was that Augustana vaulted over UMD to take second place. But here’s the key: The top two teams in the standings get first-round byes in the Northern Sun tournament, which starts its double-elimination run Thursday and finishes this weekend.
But back here in the Twin Ports, we still have a major attraction this week. The UMAC tournament - for Upper Midwest Athletic Conference - will be held at St. Scholastica starting Thursday. It is annually held at the school that wins the regular season title, and St. Scholastica finished 14-2 in UMAC play, while Wisconsin-Superior claimed second at 12-4, followed by Northwestern at 11-5, then Crown and Bethany Lutheran tied at 10-6. The Saints were 20-11 overall, while UWS was 12-16, and Northwestern an impressive 22-14. What all that means is that the Saints are something less than the usual overwhelming favorite.
Games will go all day Thursday and Friday, with the survivors finishing it all on Saturday, at the Saints field. The last few games prove how competitive the UMAC has been. St. Scholastica swept a pair from Crown last week, but both were tight games, 5-2 and 8-7. Maggie Schley, who is on something of a roll, hit home runs in both games and pitched six innings in the second game.
Crown scored four runs in the top of the seventh inning to gain a 7-7 tie before Nicole Anders singled home the winning run in the last of the seventh. Anders, incidentally, is itting .393 for the season - an acievement in fast-pitch softball that can’t be fully appreciated unless you’ve played the game. Schley’s average is .383, but both of them trail the Saints top two hitters, Cindi Rydlund, who is at .431, and Alex Bremer, who is batting .417.
One of the most memorable sports events in the Twin Ports was a couple years ago, when UWS capped its first season in the UMAC by upsetting St. Scholastica, and then having to do it again to win the double-elim tournament.
Last week, the Saints and Yellowjackets met in a doubleheader at Superior’s Spartan Sports Complex. The Saints ran away with the first game, and won 17-5, but the second was more typical of the two teams when they collide in any sport.
The game was 5-5 in the sixth inning, as Schley was doing her best to contain the Yellowjackets while going the distance. The Saints got an infield single, and coach Rilee Dawson didn’t wait. She put McKenna Slagel in to pinch run, and brought up Adrianna Cremers, a freshman from Cold Spring Rocori, to bat.
I was just thinking of jotting down a note about “over-coaching,” when Cremers cracked a shot to right center. Slagel circled the bases and Dawson waved her home, breaking the 5-5 tie as Cremers slid into third with a triple. Alexa Bremer singled her home, and Rydlund added a single for another RBI, and the sudden 8-5 lead turned into the 10-5 final.
There might be a blowout or two at the UMAC tournament, but there might also be some of the most exciting sports competition you’ll see all year. If you catch a good game, you will be impressed at how hard these young women go at it, how amazing that they stand in there and slug such fast pitching, and that they make continuous great defensive plays virtually every inning.
Stanley Cup Playoffs Spectacular Draw
If you’ve been able to watch any of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the post-Wild era, you have to be impressed by the level of play and the amazing competition. At least three times, a questionable disallowed goal against one team resulted in a victory for the other one. It’s that close.
Nashville and Winnipeg are putting on a ferocious show, with the Jets edging ahead Tuesday night with a 7-4 victory, counting two empty-net goals.
Earlier that night, Washington continues to prove they might finally be over their jinx by beating Pittsburgh 4-3 in Pittsburgh. That was an amazing game, as former UMD star defenseman Matt Niskanen from Mountain Iron scored his first playoff goal to tie the game 3-3 early in the third period.
But with 1:07 to go, Alex Ovechkin scored his eighth of the playoffs and one of the more incredible goals in his vast history. Skating in from right to left, Ovechkin shot, and beat goalie Matt Murray, but the puck hit the right pipe squarely and as Ovechkin continued his path right to left, he spotted the puck fluttering across the crease after hitting the post. Ovechkin reached back, and almost gently got is stickblade on the flying puck, bunting it into the net for the winning goal and a 2-1 edge in games over the mighty Penguins.
And yet, the team to beat might be the magical Vegas Golden Knights. They are flat astonishing at their dedicated teamwork offensively and defensively. Former Wild center Erik Haula has been outstanding for the Golden Knights, and Marc-Andre Fleury has been the best goaltender in the tournament.