Penn State

Penn State softball falls to Michigan in Big Ten semifinals

Penn State senior outfielder Lexi Knief takes a swing while at bat during the game against University of Michigan in the Big Ten Softball Tournament at Beard Field on Saturday, May 14, 2016. Michigan won the game 6-1.
Penn State senior outfielder Lexi Knief takes a swing while at bat during the game against University of Michigan in the Big Ten Softball Tournament at Beard Field on Saturday, May 14, 2016. Michigan won the game 6-1. For the Centre Daily Times

Some had rally caps, others wore their batting helmets backwards, one Nittany Lion waved an inflatable plastic palm tree, and not a single player or coach sat idle on the bench.

The Penn State softball team was ready for the top of the seventh.

Nittany Lions head coach Amanda Lehotak and her team felt they weren’t respected at the start of the 2016 season.

And while that campaign is now likely over, the coach feels as though her club’s attitude and play turned some heads this year.

The No. 4 seed Nittany Lions fell 6-1 to No. 1 Michigan in Saturday evening’s Big Ten Tournament semifinals at Beard Field.

Penn State (30-24) needed to win the conference tournament to ensure a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Ranked No. 75 nationally in RPI entering this weekend, the Nittany Lions have only an outside shot at sneaking into postseason play.

Still, Lehotak commended her team for hanging with the second-best team in the country.

“I think we gave it our best shot,” Lehotak said. “I don’t think we could have played any better. ...We just came up short.”

Against Michigan (46-4), a team that hasn’t lost since April 8, there’s no real shame in that.

The Wolverines, who lead the nation in runs per game and team batting average, have a tendency to get hot early.

Penn State experienced that first-hand a couple weeks ago when the Wolverines scored four and three first-inning runs in 12-0 and 13-3 routs, respectively, on April 29.

Michigan did it again on Saturday.

Penn State starter Marlaina Laubach walked Wolverines leadoff hitter Sierra Lawrence, who later stole second and advanced to third on a Kelly Christner groundout.

Kelsey Susalla singled down the right-field line to score Lawrence and make the first mark on the scoreboard.

It didn’t take long to add a little more to that.

Two pitches later, Tera Blanco belted a two-run home run, her 11th of the season.

The next batter? Aidan Falk, solo shot.

By the end of the first inning, Michigan captured a 4-0 lead and control of the game.

“We weren’t surprised they jumped out early,” Lehotak said. “They’ve been doing it all season long. It’s kind of their M.O.”

Laubach, the losing pitcher, was pulled after the first frame in favor of Madison Seifert.

The freshman struggled from the get-go, hitting Michigan third baseman Lindsay Montemarano on her first pitch.

But Seifert settled in. She finished the game, throwing five innings and allowing two runs on seven hits.

After earning the win on Friday against Nebraska in the conference quarterfinals, Lehotak thinks the future is bright for her young hurler.

“I really think Seifert can do something special over her career,” the third-year coach said. “I hope this is just the starting block.”

The Nittany Lions couldn’t muster much at the plate to help Seifert, though. Penn State managed only three hits, and its lone run was scored on a walk.

Michigan’s Sara Driesenga was the winning pitcher. The graduate senior threw 4 1/3 innings in relief of starter Megan Betsa to move her record to 21-0 on the season.

Now Penn State has to wait to see if it gets a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Lehotak said she’d give up her left arm to reach the postseason, and still thinks her team has a shot to get in.

“I’m hoping it’s not over yet,” Lehotak said. “I think we could make some noise in the NCAAs if we’re given the chance.”

And if they aren’t awarded that opportunity? Lehotak will still be proud of Penn State’s season.

After a 14-35 mark in her first season at the helm and a 29-28 mark last season, Lehotak’s Lions have noticeably improved — and, perhaps more importantly, the coach thinks they’ve left a lasting impression.

“I don’t know how you don’t respect us after this year and after how we played this weekend,” Lehotak said. “We felt like we had something to prove all year. I feel like we’ve proved it.

“And by some of the handshakes I’ve received from coaches, I think we’ve earned it.”

Minnesota wins Big Ten championship

Directly after the Nittany Lions and Wolverines wrapped up their semifinal contest, Minnesota defeated Michigan 4-3 in 10 innings to win the Big Ten Tournament championship.

It’s just Michigan’s fifth loss of the season.

Minnesota’s Sydney Fabian scored the game-winning run as Danielle Parlich reached first base on a fielding error. It was the Wolverines’ second error of the inning.

Sara Groenewegen was the winning pitcher. The junior threw all 10 innings, using 158 pitches (109 strikes) to navigate the potent Michigan lineup. Groenewegen struck out 11 and gave up two earned runs on nine hits.

Michigan’s Sara Driesenga, who came on in relief of Megan Betsa in the 10th, was the losing pitcher.

It looked like it was Michigan’s title to have in the top of the sixth. Tera Blanco hit a go-ahead solo home run, her 12th of the year, to make it 3-2.

But the Gophers answered in the bottom half of the frame, as Parlich stroked an RBI single to score Kayla Wenner.

Earlier, Big Ten Player of the Year and Michigan second baseman Sierra Romero opened the scoring in the top of the first with a solo home run over the centerfield wall. It was Romero’s 17th homer of the season.

Minnesota answered in the bottom of the frame, scoring on a wild pitch. Michigan retook the lead in the third on a Kelly Christner sacrifice fly, and the Gophers knotted it up again with a sac fly of their own in the bottom half of the inning.

Minnesota advanced to the championship game after handling Northwestern 8-4 earlier in the day.

John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9

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