By Charles Hallman
There are approximately 100 African American and other student-athletes of color this school year at the University of Minnesota. In an occasional series throughout the 2013-14 school and sports year, the MSR will highlight these players.
This week: Gopher softball players Tyler Walker and Madie Eckstrom
Juniors Tyler Walker and Madie Eckstrom are two members of a combined two-year recruiting class that helped Minnesota string together three consecutive 30-plus softball win seasons.
Before last weekend’s league tournament play, Walker told the MSR that despite losing two of three to the conference regular season co-champs Wolverines in a series at Ann Arbor, “We can play with the top teams. We are one of the top
The U of M went unbeaten and won the Big Ten softball tournament in Evanston, Ill. last weekend. Walker last Saturday made a game-saving diving catch of a two-out liner with a Michigan runner in scoring position in the top of the seventh inning of the title game.
Her intentional walk later with two outs set up Sam Macken’s winning RBI single. The shortstop earlier that day also slugged two homers in a semifinals shutout win over Ohio State.
As a result, the Gophers softball team this week are in the double-elimination NCAA tournament as an automatic qualifier.
“It’s been awesome. Everybody has played a big role,” continues Walker of San Jose, Calif. “I think our want and our drive at the end of [last] year carried over into our summer workouts, then carried over into the fall and to spring.”
Eckstrom, a reserve infielder from Stillwater, Minn., added that the off-season workouts “really helped us become the team we are right now. We worked a lot harder and came in shape, ready to do whatever we can to be a better team.”
Walker, a three-time All-Big Ten infielder, led the team last season in home runs, doubles and runs scored. Her two home runs last weekend gave her 10 for the season. Despite having the team’s best slugging percentage, “I always sprint because I never know for sure. But it’s nice every once in a while when it goes out there,” she admits.
It’s been an up and down season — not from a winning perspective but from the unpredictable weather this season. The MSR asked both Walker and Eckstrom about practicing in the school’s not-retrofitted-for-softball football facility.
“It always keeps things interesting,” says Walker. “The [football] turf gives us a real hop on the ball and it skids at us. Our [outfielders] have a hard time sometimes getting a read on the ball in the outfield, but it just makes us appreciate when we are outside.”
Says Eckstrom, “If it’s raining and we can’t play our game, we come in and practice and get better. That’s the only thing we can control.”
“We are going to be a force to reckoned with in the tournament,” predicts Walker of the 41-9 Gophers.
Ra’Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen, featured in last week’s SOE, were drafted by Atlanta (No. 37) and Chicago (No. 131) respectively in last week’s NFL draft.
In a printed statement, Gopher Coach Jerry Kill said: “I know [Hageman] will continue to work hard every day to represent the Falcons. I know [Vereen] is going to make Chicago a better team and will also be a great teammate in the locker room.”
Youth wake-up call
Local Black baseball historian Frank White has started a new initiative with the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts to work with ninth graders on academic importance in high school sports. “Too many ninth graders don’t understand and don’t have the awareness of how important [academics] is as they are entering ninth grade,” said White in an MSR interview last week.
He has enlisted the Minnesota Twins, who will post information on the NCAA’s new eligibility standards, which begins this fall on their websites. The team also provided tickets to current eighth graders for Wednesday’s Twins-Boston baseball game.
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