The Minnesota Golden Gophers Softball team can’t be faulted for being disappointed for how the best season in program history came to an end. Getting the shaft from the NCAA and then dropping two nailbiters to a host team that arguably should have never been hosting would leave a bad taste in anyone’s mouth. But the Gophers have decided to look at the positives of last years magical season—a 56-5 record, two school record winning streaks in in the same season, their first Big Ten regular season title since 1991, and their third Big Ten Tournament win in the last four seasons. The Gophers earned the first ever #1 ranking in school history as well—but as they learned the hard way, the polls don’t decide what happens on the field.
That’s why the eight returning starters from a lineup that set offensive school records by the bagful and the undefeated returning sophomore starting pitcher, and a home state transfer who many hope will be able to step in immediately and help the pitching depth all are ready to get back to work and prove that last year was not a fluke. The #16/18 Gopher softball team will begin their mission to show they are now a national softball power at the SportCo Kickoff Classic in Las Vegas on Friday.
As Minnesota begins the 2018 season, there are two very noticeable absences from the 2017 Gophers. Former Gopher Coach Jessica Allister who revitalized the Gophers in her six seasons at the helm departed in the off-season to coach her Alma matter—Stanford. Minnesota began a national search and hired Jamie Trachsel to be the new skipper of the Gophers. Trachsel spend one season at Iowa State attempting to turn around the Cyclones program before being hired as Allister’s replacement by Mark Coyle. Previous to Iowa State, Trachsel spend six seasons as the co-head coach of North Dakota State leading the Bison to a 244-144 record in Fargo. Oh...and of course she is “One Of Us”. Trachsel is a Duluth native and played collegiality at St. Cloud State. All played into the hiring of Trachsel, Coyle told the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
John Anderson, who has been at the U since 1981, told his boss to find someone who knows how to coach indoors. Well, Jamie Trachsel doesn’t know any different.
Coyle liked Trachsel’s coaching resume, which included a 244-144 record in six seasons at North Dakota State and one rebuilding year at Iowa State — northern schools accustomed to starting each season sheltered from winter.
Within a week, Trachsel, a Duluth native who played at St. Cloud State, was hired to replace Allister, the most successful coach in program history, who had been lured away by her alma mater Stanford.
“We just thought she would be a good fit for us, and that is how we were able to move so quickly,” Coyle said. “Throw in the fact that she is from Duluth and has Minnesota connections, it just felt really good.”
Several of her new players said that a coach like Trachsel is just what this program needed.
“She has a lot of energy and she is very competitive, so that has been the most fun thing, and the thing that I’ve noticed the most,” (Sidney) Dwyer said. “I’m looking forward to getting on the road and seeing how she is in games.”
Kendyl Lindaman also agreed. “Jamie is definitely focused on defense,” Lindaman said in a recent podcast. “She is a defensive coach and that is huge because we have always been really big into our offense. That just makes us a better team. We get two different perspectives on the game of softball.”
The other glaring loss from the 2017 season to now is the graduation of All-American and arguably the best player in Minnesota softball history in Sara Groenewegen. Minnesota will miss her dominating presence in the circle, but hope that a new transfer in can attempt to blunt some of the blow
Sydney Smith joins the Gopher program this season after transferring in from LSU. Smith had a 25-11 record over two seasons and recorded 11 shutouts pitching in the vaunted SEC. A Maple Grove native, Smith saw her playing time decrease last season after a stellar freshman year. The Gophers hope that with pitching coach Piper Ritter, Smith can regain her form that made her one of the top freshmen in the nation in 2016. If she can regain her form, the Gophers appear to have a formidable 1-2 punch in the circle in 2018.
Joining Smith in the circle will be sophomore Amber Fiser. Fiser from Van Horne, Iowa broke out as the Gophers #2 pitcher a year ago and she finished with a perfect 14-0 record and a 1.68 ERA. If Fiser can continue to develop, Minnesota will be in very good shape. The Gophers also brought in two freshmen who could potentially emerge like Fiser a year ago. Rachel Lowery was the Iowa Player of the Year and a All-American from Dallas Center, Iowa. Her sister Paige is one of the top pitchers on the reigning NCAA Champion Oklahoma Sooners. Additionally Hannah Bailey from Vista, California is another pitcher who could fins some time in the circle. She has impressed in some national club events.
Offensively is where the Gophers will be expected to shine once again. They return seven starters to a lineup that finished third in the NCAA with a .342 batting average and scored 7.2 runs per game. The centerpiece of the Gopher lineup will be sophomore catcher Kendyl Lindaman. Lindaman was named both the Big Ten Freshman and Player of the Year a season ago leading the conference in batting average at .426, home runs with 20 and tied with Gophers first baseman Sydney Dwyer to finish third in the NCAA in RBI’s with 76. Dwyer added 12 home runs and will be another formidable bat in the middle of the Gopher order.
The Gophers will return the rest of their starting infield as well as leadoff maven Makenna Partain with hit .380 a season ago returns to 2b, Allie Arneson returns to shortstop (though she has a minor injury and will miss the first few games), and Danielle Parlich returns to the hot corner at third.
Two thirds of the starting outfield return as well as Dani Wagner returns to center field and Maddie Houlihan goes back to right. The Gophers brought in a speedy trio of freshman outfielders what may compete for the left field job in Alex Velazquez, Elee Jensen, and Alex Thompson. Senior Ellie Cowger could also find herself in a competition for the spot.
The NCAA excuse for giving the Gophers the shaft a year ago was that their schedule was took weak. With a weak Big Ten, Minnesota needs to go out and find some serious competition in the non-conference portion of the schedule, and that they have done. Minnesota will start the season with 31 straight road games due to our harsh climate, and they will visit some of college softball’s biggest names. Minnesota will play a pair of games at #9 Florida State next weekend in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. They get #17 Kentucky in a tournament in Orlando the next week, and get the #5 UCLA Bruins at a tournament in San Diego the week after that. Just in case that wasn’t enough, the Gophers play a trio of games at #23 Arizona State and add a game at #7 Arizona in March. If Minnesota plays as well as they did a year ago, the NCAA can’t blame them for their schedule this season.
Minnesota will ease into the 2018 season a bit before the tough ranked opponents begin. The Gophers will play five games this weekend in Las Vegas and they begin Friday with games against Southern Utah and Utah Valley. The toughest game of the weekend will most likely be against Trachel’s former team, NDSU on Saturday morning before a game against host UNLV Running Rebels in the afternoon. The Gophers finish up the tournament Sunday morning with a game against the Creighton Jays.
Minnesota may not quite live up to its 2017 season, but the Gophers are ready to once again compete on a national level, fight for another Big Ten title, and try and make some waves come NCAA Tournament time. It should be a fun ride to watch.