Hawkeye softball takes on Big Ten Tournament

After sneaking into the Big Ten Tournament at the No. 12 spot, Iowa softball looks to stay alive today against Wisconsin.

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Hawkeye softball takes on Big Ten Tournament

Iowa players huddle between innings during a softball game between Iowa and Ohio State at Bob Pearl Field on Sunday, May 5, 2019. The Hawkeyes, celebrating senior day, fell to the Buckeyes, 5-0.

Iowa players huddle between innings during a softball game between Iowa and Ohio State at Bob Pearl Field on Sunday, May 5, 2019. The Hawkeyes, celebrating senior day, fell to the Buckeyes, 5-0.

Shivansh Ahuja

Iowa players huddle between innings during a softball game between Iowa and Ohio State at Bob Pearl Field on Sunday, May 5, 2019. The Hawkeyes, celebrating senior day, fell to the Buckeyes, 5-0.

Shivansh Ahuja

Shivansh Ahuja

Iowa players huddle between innings during a softball game between Iowa and Ohio State at Bob Pearl Field on Sunday, May 5, 2019. The Hawkeyes, celebrating senior day, fell to the Buckeyes, 5-0.

Pete Mills, Assistant Sports Editor

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With one of the toughest schedules in the nation and new program leadership, it seemed as if it would be an unfruitful year for Iowa softball. The Big Ten Tournament seemed like a lofty goal a few weeks ago because the team was mired in an 11-game losing streak that lasted until April 13.

But the team sneaked into the No. 12 spot in the conference after taking down Ohio State on May 3, locking up the last spot in the Big Ten Tournament. It will take on No. 5 seed Wisconsin today at 10 a.m. in Bloomington, Indiana.

“You play all season long for this moment, this moment to play in the Big Ten Tournament, this moment to be able to go on to regionals,” head coach Renee Gillispie said.

An interesting opportunity awaits the team this weekend. With a fringerecord for the conference tournament, a bid into NCAA postseason seems unlikely. However, a strong showing in the conference tournament could bring the Hawkeyes some unexpected chances.

“Whoever wants it is going to take it, that’s the nice thing about these tournaments,” Gillispie said. “Winner has an automatic bid into the regionals. That’ll be our only opportunity to get into the regionals, so we’ve got a lot of fight in us wanting to get back [there].”

There is some historic success for the program in postseason play. Iowa ranks No. 5 in conference history in winning percentage in the tournament (.480) and has won it all twice.

RELATED: Hawkeye softball looking at second chance against Badgers

There is a certain feeling among the players that this is happening at a good time. With eyes focused on the Badgers — who swept the Hawkeyes earlier this season — the team is ready to show that it has improved.

“We’re definitely a different team,” pitcher Sarah Lehman said. “Watching our games against them in the past, I don’t know if they’ll be ready for the new us.”

In that first series, Wisconsin caught Iowa in one of its worst slumps of the season. Runs were unbelievably scarce for the Hawkeyes — they scored only 3 in the three-game series — and the pitching staff was worn out.

But now, starters Lehman and Allison Doocy are pitching some of their best stuff of the season. Lehman is in her first season of college softball. The sophomore right-hander struggled to adjust earlier this season, but she’s been very strong lately, bringing her season ERA down to 4.75. This has taken pressure off of Doocy — who is No. 4 in the conference in strikeouts this season — who has otherwise been Iowa’s only dependable starter.

The bats will need to get going this weekend to make it happen. Senior Mallory Kilian missed Senior Day on May 5 because an injury in the April 30 game against Northern Iowa. She is hitting .231 on the season with 31 hits and 7 doubles, so the potential of having her back could make a big difference for the spotty offense.

Nothing is easy in the Big Ten, but Wisconsin has been lethal in several areas this season. The Badgers rank No. 3 in the conference in team ERA at 2.07. Kayla Knowent leads the conference in batting average at .479, with 70 hits in 146 at bats. But a strong day against the Badgers could make anything happen, and Iowa will have to bring it to stay alive.