Hawkeye softball in hunt for Big Ten title

BY BEN ROSS | MAY 11, 2012 6:30 AM

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The Iowa softball team is just one year removed from a 9-11 conference record and an eighth-place finish, but it is now in the midst of a three-team race for the top finish in the Big Ten.

Iowa, second in the league with a 14-7 mark, will head to Minnesota (9-12) this weekend for its final regular-season competition.

The other two squads still in the hunt for the Big Ten title, Michigan (15-5) and Purdue (13-7), play each other this weekend in a three-game series in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The Hawkeyes don't necessarily control their own destiny. The Black and Gold can claim the top spot by end of the week if they sweep the Gilded Rodents in Minneapolis and get a little help from Purdue.

If the Boilermakers can take at least two games from the reigning conference champions, Iowa will earn its highest finish since it placed second in 2005.

Senior captain Katie Keim said she thinks the Hawkeyes don't add any extra or unnecessary value to the closing games of the Big Ten season and head into them as they do any other contest.

"We try not to think about it," she said.

The Hawkeyes can still look back at a successful season if they don't win the conference, especially because this is only the second year head coach Marla Looper has been at the helm of the Iowa program.

The former Texas assistant didn't take much credit when asked about the vast improvement her squad made from last year. She said she only shows players they have the ability to be successful; it's up to them to play to that ability.

"It's not about what I have done or what our coaches have done," Looper said. "We do our best to steer them and get them confident in their own abilities so they can just go play. Their being empowered to know, 'I will do this,' not just 'I can do this' — that's the biggest basis of my philosophy, empowering the people to do what they can do and what they're capable and willing to do."

The last time the Hawkeyes made it to the postseason was in 2009, when they lost to Boston University in the regional round of the NCAA Tournament.

Seniors Keim and Liz Watkins were freshmen on that squad, and they are the only players on the current roster with any postseason experience.

Watkins didn't appear to lack confidence when asked about the upcoming games; she said she's playing with extra motivation in order to reach her goal of making it to the postseason her senior year.

"These games are crucial if we want to make postseason or have a chance on Big Ten," the Illinois native said. "We have that drive as seniors; we want to go to the postseason really bad.

"Keep rooting for us, because we're going to sweep Minnesota. Michigan has to lose … hopefully, everything works out."

Follow DI softball reporter Ben Ross on Twitter.

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