After a long winter, our “Only One” reporter finally got out and spent last weekend as the only Black media member in the Jane Sage Cowles Stadium press box at the NCAA Minneapolis Regional softball tournament at the University of Minnesota. Again I seemingly wore my invisible suit as the passing-out-stats people passed me by on a couple of occasions.
Before last weekend’s four-team double elimination tournament, I promised Gophers’ Tyler Walker and Madie Eckstrom that I would attend. The two previously were featured a couple of weeks ago in our Gopher 100 series.
“We are going to see a whole lot of each other,” exclaimed Walker. “That’s awesome.”
“It’s exciting for us and we’re glad to be here,” said Eckstrom.
We asked Minnesota Coach Jessica Allister to briefly assess the two players’ contributions this season: “We’re rolling when she gets on base,” she said of Walker, the Gophers’ leadoff hitter and three-time all-conference player. She added on Eckstrom, a pinch hitter, “She comes in when the pressure is on, there’s runners [on base] and we need a hit. I tell the team all the time that [a pinch hitter] is the hardest role in the game. She’s done a tremendous job for us.”
Our weekend consisted of seven games, including three on Saturday and two on Sunday. Two games went extra innings for a cumulative 18 innings and six hours.
We watched seven games, including three on Saturday and two on Sunday last weekend. And the only three Black players in the four-team field played in Sunday’s championship doubleheader: Minnesota’s Walker and Eckstrom, and Auburn sophomore first baseman Jade Rhodes, who says she’s used to being one or one of a few. All three made significant on-field contributions, either at the plate or in the field.
Only a handful of Blacks, not counting the three players, stadium workers and this reporter, were part of the record-setting attendance that watched college softball at the Minnesota campus, however.
Mike Perry says his 10th grade daughter Justus typically is the only Black female on her traveling team. “There’s none on her Birmingham [traveling team],” he reports. “Last year she played for the Minnesota Sting – zero. Before that, the Minnesota Renegades – zero. I don’t know about Minneapolis and St. Paul but we’re down in Prior Lake and we play out of the South Suburban Conference, and there’s not many African Americans [there].”
Perry says his daughter plans to continue playing softball in college at the Division I level.
Minnesota’s (44-10) remarkable season is still going, as the Gophers advanced to the NCAA Super Regionals May 22-25.
Walker reached the 200 hits plateau for her career last weekend. Her triple in the 10-1 win over Green Bay in their first tourney game last Friday gave her eight, which leads the NCAA. “I knew I had to work to get some bases on that one,” she points out. “It felt good off the bat, though.”
Eckstrom hit consecutive doubles in the deciding game Sunday as the Gophers erased a three-run deficit and won 8-6. “I was seeing the ball really well,” she told the MSR after her team’s Minneapolis Regional clinching win.
After the win, the junior designated hitter found her three biggest supporters in the stands: “I hugged my parents and my dog. Those are the three people I like to see right after a game. They were really happy that I did well today,” she said smiling.
“Although the first game didn’t go our way,” noted Walker on Minnesota’s 4-3 loss in eight innings, “we knew we had to do what we needed to do to make it go our way.” Then after Auburn’s grand slam homer to put the Gophers three runs behind, “It got a little crazy but we chipped our way back and it went well for us,” she points out.
Both players agree that Gopher relief pitcher Nikki Anderson’s 3 2/3 inning performance in the second game Sunday changed the momentum in Minnesota’s favor. “Once Nikki came in, it was awesome,” says Walker. “Everybody got pumped and we knew we were doing it when she started mowing people down and throwing strikes. We got behind her on offense and got great cuts.”
“Ty got the big hit to extend the [sixth] inning for Mackey (Sam Macken) to hit the home run,” adds Coach Allister. “Madie came up with some huge hits today and was hitting the ball early on. She was ready – she knew she would get the opportunity and she took advantage of it.”
All cliques aside, last weekend’s tournament, with Minnesota outlasting the quartet, was exciting from start to finish. Eckstrom earlier told me that a key part of her Gopher team is their never-say-die attitude, and that was in full display throughout the tourney. “We’re a top team and we can come out and win a game at any time,” she proudly says.
Minnesota now has to play top-seed Oregon. “Oregon is a tough team, but we’re tougher,” believes Eckstrom. “It’s nice being the underdog because no one expects you to win, and there’s no pressure. We can win, no matter what.”
“I’m just happy that we get to keep going,” states Coach Allister. “I absolutely love this team.”
“If you weren’t here, you missed the hardest working team that you’ll probably ever see,” said Walker. “We are just going to keep working hard.”
“I want your readers to support us,” concludes Eckstrom.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected]