Kendyl Lindaman and Minnesota pack a powerful message for their unexpected road trip
MINNEAPOLIS -- On most days when Minnesota practices at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium on campus, freshman catcher Kendyl Lindaman and senior pitcher Sara Groenewegen -- the back-to-back Big Ten Players of the Year -- team up for a little competition. One flip-tosses a softball, and the other tries to belt it into the football practice facility under construction beyond the left-field fence.
Here's how prodigious a poke this is: It's 205 feet from the plate to the stadium fence, then another 35 feet to the construction site. A cement wall facing the stadium rises about 50 feet, topped by another 35 feet of framework to hold the unfinished peaked roof. Groenewegen and Lindaman have yet to land one inside, though Groenewegen said Lindaman came closest, hitting the roof framework.
Lindaman's blasts are the talk of the Big Ten. In a game last month against Indiana, Lindaman hit a ball that clipped the left-field foul pole and struck the wall more than halfway up. Ten feet higher and it would have landed inside. Two players in the scrum awaiting Lindaman at the plate covered their mouths in astonishment.
"Everyone's faces were in awe," Groenewegen said. "It's really neat. What she does with the ball -- I've never seen anyone hit it that hard and that far, and I'm just thankful that she's on my team."
Lindaman already owned the Gophers' single-season home run record when she launched her 20th last weekend, the go-ahead grand slam against Illinois in the Big Ten conference tournament semifinal. Lindaman has been so dominant that throwing her a strike brings an automatic second-guess. Ohio State pitched around her four times in the Big Ten tournament championship game, but deep-hitting Minnesota won 6-0 anyway for its third Big Ten title in four years.
Curiously that wasn't enough to land the second-ranked Gophers (54-3) one of the 16 seeds in the 64-team NCAA tournament. Coach Jessica Allister and her players expected to host a regional and a super-regional as a top-eight seed. Instead the Gophers, riding a 25-game winning streak and the best record in the nation, travel to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to face Louisiana Tech on Friday in a double-elimination regional.
"There was disappointment and a little bit of shock," Allister said. "It's tough to swallow because I'm not sure what else we could have done this season. But at the same time, that's out of our control. It's by far not the biggest injustice done to anyone in the world, and life's not fair. Now we turn our attention to Louisiana Tech.
"We've got to make sure we keep the message on, we're still going into the field of 64, and everything we want is still ahead of us."
The team watched the selection show at a Buffalo Wild Wings on campus. When Minnesota's name appeared without a seeding number, the players sat in stunned silence. "I thought it was fake," sophomore outfielder Maddie Houlihan said. "I didn't really know what was happening. Mad, sad, angry, whatever. It took us a couple of minutes to digest it, and then it was time to move on."
Lindaman turned into the breakout star of one of best hitting teams in the country. The Big Ten player and freshman of the year, Lindaman leads the conference in batting average (.438), slugging percentage (.942), on-base percentage (.608), homers (20) and walks (60). Her 74 RBIs trail only teammate Sydney Dwyer's 76; no one else is close.
Allister, a former All-American catcher at Stanford who played in two Women's College World Series and reached NCAA tournaments as an assistant coach at three schools, said she has never seen anyone hit a ball harder than the 5-foot-10 Lindaman.
"You never get used to how far she hits balls, but we see her do it a lot," Allister said. "In the dugout, it's excitement, not surprise."
Until recently Lindaman saw a lot more strikes than in her final three seasons at Ankeny (Iowa) Centennial High, when she was the most feared hitter in the state. Lindaman hit the first of her state-record 71 homers as an eighth-grader for Ankeny High's state Class 5A champions. By the time Ankeny split into two schools before her sophomore year, few wanted to pitch to her. Lindaman walked 218 times in her career, a national record.
By her senior year, Lindaman knew to look at the opposing coach as she headed to the plate to see whether they would walk her.
"They normally stood up and yelled it out, so I knew it was coming," she said. "Every once in a while I'd swing at one of the balls so they'd have to throw another one."
It's tough to swallow because I'm not sure what else we could have done this season.Jessica Allister
"Obviously it's frustrating for a kid," said her dad, Trent Lindaman. "She wants to swing the bat. She wants to help her team, But she's patient, and she realizes her job is to get on base, and walks get you on base. That was her thing: 'I'm going to get on base any way I can, whether it's a hit, a walk, if you want to hit me with a pitch, whatever it takes.' "
This season, Lindaman remained patient as Big Ten teams pitched around her. Dwyer's three home runs in the Big Ten semis and finals, the second a walk-off to beat Illinois, sparked the Gophers to the title.
"Any way I can get on base helps my team, and that's one step closer to winning," Lindaman said. "Everyone can hit, so if you walk one of us, there are eight other players who can hit us in."
Lindaman's keen eye and athleticism helps in other ways. Last fall, knowing she had a chance to start behind the plate, she asked All-American Groenewegen to repeatedly throw her change-ups in the dirt so she could practice catching and blocking them. They quickly developed rapport and confidence. Groenewegen (30-2, 0.59 ERA) was named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year for the second time.
"My changeup is different than other people's," Groenewegen said. "I think she was a little taken aback, and any catcher who hasn't seen it before is going to be. But she's put in hours and hours of work, especially blocking. I have full trust in her. She's done an amazing job."
Now it's on to Tuscaloosa, where Lindaman and the Gophers vow to show the NCAA selection committee they deserved better.
"We've always been the underdog, and we still are now," Lindaman said. "I think we play best being an underdog, and that's huge for us. We have a lot of motivation right now, and we're just going to take that to Alabama."