The Minot State University softball team enters this weekend's Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament disappointed, but confident.
After giving up four runs in the sixth inning of a 4-2 loss to Augustana College (S.D.) on Sunday, the Beavers went from clinching a share of the NSIC regular-season championship to the No. 4 seed. MSU (36-7 overall, 19-5 NSIC) opens the tournament against No. 5 Upper Iowa at 11 a.m. today in Rochester, Minn.
"It's a letdown when you're that close," said MSU junior Jen Dixon, who leads the Beavers with a .492 batting average and 11 home runs. "One inning was all that separates us. It's disappointing, but it gives us that much more motivation to win the conference tournament."
Minot State University junior Jen Dixon prepares to deliver a pitch against Minnesota, Crookston on April 25 at Herb Parker Stadium. Dixon is batting a team-high .492 as the Beavers enter the postseason.
MSU and Upper Iowa (28-14, 15-7) split a pair of games this year, but the Beavers have reason for confidence. Senior ace Mandy Greenberg - who ranks in the top 10 nationally in ERA (1.10) and strikeouts per seven innings (11.1) - allowed just two hits in five innings against the Peacocks during an 8-0 MSU win April 6. Upper Iowa bounced back and won game two of the doubleheader 8-4.
"We'll throw Mandy that first game and we like our chances, that's for sure," MSU coach Bill Triplett said.
The top 10 teams of the 16-team league qualified for the tournament, with Minnesota State-Mankato and Minnesota Duluth earning the top two seeds. MSU won two of three contests against Duluth this season, and its doubleheader with Mankato was canceled due to weather.
Triplett stressed the importance of beating Upper Iowa, because any team that drops into the losers bracket of the double-elimination tournament has to win extra games to get back into title contention.
The Peacocks are second in the conference in both batting average (.339) and on-base percentage (.409). Seniors Hailley Haning (.377 average) and Rachel Anello (.370), along with sophomore Whitney Williams (.373), give Upper Iowa a trio of consistent hitters.
"The 4/5 is a pretty tough draw," Triplett said. "We're opposite teams. They're a small-ball team, they can fly, they bunt and steal bases, and we're an extra-base hitting team. Hopefully we can keep their speedsters off the bases. It's gonna be a good game, that's for sure."
The Beavers are looking for a strong performance this weekend to secure a spot in the eight-team NCAA Central Region tournament. MSU was ranked No. 6 in Wednesday's region rankings, but the only way to ensure a bid is to earn the automatic slot given to the NSIC tournament winner.
"(The ranking has) been in the back of our minds," Dixon said. "We might as well not worry about that. We might as well just focus on winning it and making it a guarantee to make it into those regionals."
Weather aside, track teams finding stride
Despite an inability to practice outside this spring, the MSU track and field teams are improving with each meet.
The men's and women's squads combined for eight personal bests and 15 season bests Saturday at the Gustavus Adolphus Drake Alternative Meet.
"Every meet we're doing better and better, and that's what we want," MSU coach Stu Melby said. "Our improvements may be even more so if the weather was nicer."
Melby said the Beavers have only been outdoors during meets and the days prior to meets, which aren't full workouts because athletes don't expend much energy before a competition.
Melby said the teams could get in an outdoor practice today in advance of Saturday's meet at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. That will leave only three more potential workouts next week before the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference Outdoor Championships.
The Beavers currently have two provisional national qualifiers - Kirk Capdeville in men's pole vault (15 feet, 11 inches) and Abbey Aide in women's pole vault (12-00.5). However, both are outside the top 16 qualifiers and must add a couple inches to earn a spot at nationals.
Junior Allie Helterbran and sophomore Sienna Dailey have performed consistently while bearing heavy workloads. Last weekend, each placed in individual sprinting events while also competing as part of relay teams.