2017 Softball Season in Review

June 16, 2017

The Big Ten recently capped off another successful softball season by sending six schools to postseason play, including five to the NCAA Tournament. Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin all earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament, while Michigan State represented the conference in the inaugural National Invitational Softball Championship (NISC).

NCAA Tournament: All five Big Ten schools that competed in this year’s NCAA Tournament were sent on the road, with four conference programs advancing to their respective regional championship games against host schools. Big Ten Champion Minnesota reached the title game of the Tuscaloosa Regional (its two tournament losses coming by identical 1-0 scores to host Alabama, the first in nine innings and the second denying the Golden Gophers their second NCAA Super Regional appearance in four years), while Michigan finished second at the Seattle Regional (the Wolverines’ 18th consecutive trip to an NCAA regional final and 24th in the past 26 seasons). Illinois was the runner-up at the Lexington Regional (making its first appearance in an NCAA regional final since 2004) and Wisconsin advanced to the championship game at the Eugene Regional (its third regional title game berth in five years), while Ohio State competed in the Knoxville Regional. The complete results and recaps from the five Big Ten schools that participated in the 2017 NCAA Tournament can be found here.

Spartans in the NISC: The college softball landscape added another postseason layer in 2017 with the introduction of the National Invitational Softball Championship (NISC), a 26-team tournament hosted at six regional campus sites around the country. Michigan State earned a berth in this inaugural event, making its first postseason appearance since 2004. The Spartans shook off an extra-inning loss to Murray State in their Region 3 opener at Normal, Illinois, reeling three consecutive wins, including a 4-3 decision over host Illinois State in the first championship round game to force an “if-necessary” game to determine the regional champion. Although MSU fell to Illinois State in that final contest, the Spartans capped their season with their highest win total (34) in 12 years. All the results and recaps from Michigan State’s appearance in the 2017 NISC are shown here.

Big Ten Champions: Minnesota earned the fourth Big Ten title in program history, and first since 1991, by going 22-1 (.957) during conference play. The Golden Gophers’ 22 Big Ten victories were the most by any conference school since 1998 (Michigan, 22-1) and tied the second-most wins ever recorded by one school in Big Ten regular-season action, trailing only Indiana’s 23-5 record in 1994. Minnesota’s .957 winning percentage was the best in conference games since Michigan’s similar mark in 1998 and the second-highest in Big Ten history behind Iowa’s perfect 22-0 record in 1997. For more on this year’s conference race, click here.

Big Ten Tournament: Top-seeded Minnesota completed a sweep of the Big Ten Championship and Tournament with a 6-0 win over No. 3 seed Ohio State in the tournament title game. It was the Golden Gophers’ second consecutive Big Ten Tournament championship, as well as their third in four seasons and the fourth in school history. A full rundown on this year’s Big Ten Tournament can be found by clicking here.

Final Rankings: Four Big Ten schools were ranked in the final 2017 National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA)/USA Today poll, led by No. 15 Minnesota, which rose to No. 1 in the coaches’ poll for the first time in program history on May 16. Michigan was also ranked in the NFCA poll at No. 20, while Illinois and Wisconsin received votes. In the final USA Softball/ESPN.com poll, five Big Ten schools were ranked, led by Minnesota at No. 14, followed by 20th-ranked Michigan and No. 24 Illinois, with Ohio State and Wisconsin receiving votes. The final NFCA and USA Softball polls can be found here and here.

All-Big Ten Honors: The Big Ten selected its 2017 All-Big Ten teams and individual award recipients, with Minnesota earning all four individual accolades through a vote of the conference’s 14 head coaches. The Golden Gophers’ Kendyl Lindaman was chosen as both the Player and Freshman of the Year (the fourth student in Big Ten softball history to earn both awards and the first since Michigan Sierra Romero in 2013), while Minnesota’s Sara Groenewegen collected Pitcher of the Year honors and Jessica Allister claimed Coach of the Year plaudits. A complete list of this year’s All-Big Ten teams and individual honorees is shown here.

NCAA Statistical Leaders: Minnesota finished as the NCAA statistical champion in doubles per game (1.72) and won-loss percentage (.918), while placing second in earned run average (1.19) and on-base percentage (.445). Michigan was second nationally in fielding percentage (.982) and Indiana was second for fewest hit batters (10). Individually, Michigan’s Megan Betsa was first in total strikeouts (412), while Michigan State’s Lea Foerster led the nation in total doubles (26), while teammate Ebonee Echols was first in total triples (11) and triples per game (0.19). In addition, Iowa’s Lea Thompson tied for first in sacrifice hits per game (0.41). Foerster also placed second nationally in runs per game (1.21) and doubles per game (0.45), while Minnesota’s Sara Groenewegen was second in ERA (0.63).

Big Ten Records: Michigan State had two students etch their names in the Big Ten record book this season, as Lea Foerster piled up a conference-record 26 doubles (the previous mark of 24 was held by four students, most recently Northwestern’s Garland Cooper in 2006) and Ebonie Echols tied the Big Ten standard with 11 triples (a total also reached by Michigan’s Lisa Panetta in 1985 and the Wolverines’ Patti Benedict in 1993). In addition, Minnesota’s Sydney Dwyer and Kendyl Lindaman tied for second in conference history with 76 RBI (the record is 83 by Michigan’s Sierra Romero in 2015), with Lindaman also setting a Big Ten record with 36 RBI during conference play (eclipsing the mark of 35 RBI first set by Michigan’s Amanda Chidester in 2011 and matched by Romero in 2013).

National Individual Honors: Minnesota’s Kendyl Lindaman was chosen as the NFCA Diamond Sports Catcher of the Year and was a finalist for the NFCA Schutt Sports National Freshman of the Year award. In addition, the Golden Gophers’ Sara Groenewegen was a finalist for the Honda Sports Award in softball, as well as the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year and Senior CLASS awards (joining Nebraska’s MJ Knighten as a finalist for the latter honor). For more on these awards, click here, here and here.

All-Americans: Nine Big Ten softball students from six conference schools earned NFCA All-America honors in 2017, the most All-America selections for the Big Ten since 2005. This year’s honorees are led by the Minnesota battery of pitcher Sara Groenewegen (a unanimous selection) and catcher Kendyl Lindaman, who both received first-team All-America citations. Michigan had three students receive All-America status, with pitcher Megan Betsa and outfielder Kelly Christner making the second team, while infielder Faith Canfield was a third-team selection. Four other Big Ten schools had one NFCA All-American — Michigan State outfielder Lea Foerster appeared on the second team, while Illinois outfielder Nicole Evans, Ohio State infielder Lilli Piper and Wisconsin catcher Chloe Miller were third-team honorees. More information on this year’s Big Ten All-Americans is listed here.

NFCA All-Region Honors: No fewer than 36 Big Ten softball students representing 11 conference schools earned a place on NFCA all-region teams this season. Nearly half of that group (17) received first-team all-region citations in 2017. The complete rundown of this year’s Big Ten softball all-region selections can be found by clicking here.

NFCA Great Lakes Region Coaching Staff of the Year: On the heels of Minnesota’s school-record 56 wins and the Big Ten regular season and tournament championships, the Golden Gophers’ coaching staff was selected by the NFCA as the Great Lakes Region Coaching Staff of the Year. Head coach Jessica Allister, associate head coach Jessica Merchant, pitching coach Piper Ritter and director of operations Michael Kyllo-Kittleson earned the regional coaching honor for the first time and were among 14 staffs chosen as finalists for the NFCA National Coaching Staff of the Year award. Additional insights on this honor are shown here.

Big Ten Medal of Honor: Illinois' Nicole Evans and Indiana’s CaraMia Tsirigos earned the Big Ten Medal of Honor this year, becoming the 22nd and 23rd softball students to receive the prestigious award. Evans is the second Fighting Illini softball student is as many years to earn the honor (following in the footsteps of Allie Bauch), while Tsirigos is the first Hoosier softball student to be a Big Ten Medal of Honor recipient since 1996 (Gina Ugo). For more information, click here and here.

Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar Award: Illinois outfielder Nicole Evans earned the prestigious Arthur Ashe Jr. Female Sports Scholar of the Year Award, receiving the honor that is bestowed annually upon an undergraduate student of color who best exemplifies academic and athletic achievement. More details on this award can be found here.

Academic All-Americans: Four Big Ten softball standouts collected Academic All-America honors in 2017, according to the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA). Illinois’ Nicole Evans was a first-team selection, while Michigan State’s Lea Foerster was a second-team choice and teammate Kristina Zalewski was a third-team honoree. Minnesota’s Sara Groenewegen rounded out the group, earning third-team accolades. The full release on this year’s Big Ten Academic All-Americans is located here.

Academic All-District: The Big Ten saw nine softball students receive Academic All-District recognition from CoSIDA this season. In addition to eventual Academic All-Americans Evans, Foerster, Groenewegen and Zalewski, three others earned first-team Academic All-District citations — Illinois’ Stephanie Abello and Annie Fleming, and Minnesota’s Sydney Dwyer. Meanwhile, Indiana’s CaraMia Tsirigos and Michigan’s Abby Ramirez were second-team Academic All-District selections. More information on the Big Ten Academic All-District honorees may be read here.

Academic All-Big Ten: All 14 Big Ten programs were represented among the 141 softball students that received Academic All-Big Ten honors in 2017. Included in that group is Michigan State pitcher Kristina Zalewski, who was among 22 Big Ten students competing in spring or at-large sports to maintain a perfect 4.0 cumulative GPA. The roster of spring and at-large Big Ten Academic All-Big Ten selections is shown here.

Big Ten Outstanding Sportsmanship Award: Maryland’s Hannah Dewey was chosen as one of her school’s two recipients of the Big Ten Outstanding Sportsmanship Award for the 2016-17 academic year. Dewey is the first Terrapin softball student to receive the honor. For more information, click here.

NPF Draft Picks: Five Big Ten softball students were chosen in the 2017 National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) College Draft, the largest contingent of Big Ten standouts selected in the 12-year history of the NPF Draft. Three of those students were picked by the Akron Racers (Minnesota pitcher Sara Groenewegen, Michigan pitcher Megan Betsa and Wisconsin catcher Chloe Miller), while Michigan outfielder Kelly Christner went to the USSSA Pride and Nebraska infielder MJ Knighten was drafted by the Scrap Yard Dawgs. Full details on this year’s Big Ten NPF Draft class can be found by clicking here.