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College softball: Bulldogs get defensive in run to NCAA Super Regional series

Minnesota Duluth second baseman Natalie Wright dove to her left at last week's NCAA Division II Central Region 1 softball tournament, attempting to glove a hard-hit ground ball.

Suddenly, the ball took a bad hop to the inside, forcing Wright to reach across her body to snag it before calmly throwing to first base for the out.

"She made it look like, 'Yeah, I make this play all the time,'" UMD coach Jen Walter said. "Well, she does. I'm not surprised."

 Minnesota Duluth infielder Natalie Wright follows through on a throw during an April doubleheader. Steve Kuchera / News TribuneWright and the No. 25 Bulldogs (44-14) have made a habit of making ridiculous plays look easy in advancing to this week's super regional showdown with No. 8 Southern Arkansas (55-9). This is the farthest UMD has advanced since joining the NCAA ranks in 1992.

Game 1 of the best-of-three series is 6 p.m. Thursday in Magnolia, Ark., with the tournament concluding Friday. The winner advances to NCAA Division II Championship tournament May 24-28 at Moyer Sports Complex in Salem, Va.

"We can win it all," Wright said. "Pedal to the metal. I think if we keep playing how we're playing, we've got a good shot."

Seeds didn't matter at last week's Central Region 1 tournament. Top-seeded Winona State quickly bowed out of the double-elimination tournament as eighth-seeded Emporia State not only beat the Warriors (3-1) but the fourth-seeded Bulldogs (1-0) as well. UMD, however, bounced back to win three straight, including two over the Hornets to advance.

"After we came back and won, I knew we weren't letting up and weren't going to stop," Wright said. "We knew we could do it. There wasn't a doubt in our minds."

Now UMD is reaping the rewards.

The Bulldogs left UMD at 9 a.m. Tuesday, jumped on a charter flight and were in their Magnolia hotel by 1:30 p.m., arriving to 90-degree temperatures and a very sticky dew point of 67.

"That's a good way to travel," Walter said, laughing. "We kind of feel like rock stars. We're excited to be here, and I think we feel like we belong here. We're earned the right. I don't think we'll have the deer in the headlights look."

Walter hopes getting down to Arkansas early helps the Bulldogs settle in. The team hit for 90 minutes on Tuesday, with the first official practice on Wednesday.

"We're getting acclimated," Walter said in a Tuesday phone interview. "It's warm and muggy here, but we'll be ready to go."

Walter said the Bulldogs' defense has been the most consistent part of their game this season. UMD had four errors in five region games last week, but those were more than compensated for by stellar plays in the field.

"We made some plays last week where I just shook my head," Walter said. "We don't panic. It makes it easier for our pitchers to throw when they don't have to strike everybody out, because we're not a strikeout team."

Walter, who credited assistant coach Allie Anttila for her defensive work with the group, laughed when asked who UMD's top fielders were.

"All of them," she said. "It's hard to highlight any one player because they're all so good. They take pride in their defense. It's not something they take for granted. They work hard at it every day."

But certainly, up the middle, where UMD has it's three senior captains, is a strength. Shortstop Becky Smith made a leaping catch last week and then caught the runner off second for a double play.

In center is Hannah Schmoll of Grand Rapids, UMD's all-time hits, runs and steals leader. Schmoll is a dazzling 20-for-31 at the plate this postseason but also uses her blazing speed to take away hits in the outfield.

And then there's Wright, the crafty second baseman from Wyoming, Minn. Those three have a special chemistry, having been roommates each of the past three years.

"Having us three up the middle, it's awesome. I feel like we're pretty unstoppable," Wright said. "We trust each other, whether it's communication or knowing who is going to make the play. We just have that feeling, we work so well together.

"If that ball got past Becky last week and that run scored, it could have been a different outcome, and in the outfield, nothing gets past Hannah."

Walter, in her third season with the Bulldogs, said she never ceases to be amazed by this team, including that play by Wright, even if she has gotten used to it.

"We've got great leaders, and they set the tone," Walter said. "They're on a mission, so I'm just going to go along for the ride."

NO. 25 UMD (44-14) AT NO. 8 SOUTHERN ARKANSAS (55-9)

What: NCAA Division II softball super regional

When: 6 p.m. Thursday

Where: Magnolia, Ark.

On deck: The best-of-three series concludes Friday, with the winner advancing to the NCAA Division II Championship tournament May 24-28 at Moyer Sports Complex in Salem, Va.