The Minnesota Golden Gophers softball team will kick off their 2019 season Friday in Orlando, Florida with a quartet of non-conference games. Minnesota enters the 2019 season ranked for the fifth consecutive season. They are #21 in the USA Today/ NFCA poll and #23 in the ESPN/USA Softball poll. The Gophers will be trying to continue the pattern of prolonged success that has led to six consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament and three consecutive Big Ten Tournament Championships. Minnesota has finished in either first or second in the Big Ten regular season the last four seasons and is once again expected to finish near the top of the standings. But Minnesota will need to figure out the loss of two key pieces from the 2018 season in Sydney Dwyer and Kendyl Lindaman. Luckily the Gophers return their ace in the circle in Amber Fiser and three of their top four offensive threats from a season ago.
Minnesota will look to build on a season in 2018 where they went 41-17 overall and ended up 17-4 in the Big Ten, good enough for second place behind Michigan. The Gophers then swept through the Big Ten Tournament and won it for the third consecutive season. Minnesota’s run ended in the Pacific Northwest for the second time in three seasons with a regional loss to the Washington Huskies.
Unfortunately for the Gophers, they will not have two-time All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year Lindaman to rely on in 2019. Lindaman transferred in December from the U and ended up at Florida. She immediately steps into start at catcher for a nationally ranked top five team, and one the Gophers will see in Gainesville in March.
The Gophers got breakout performances from several players in 2018, many who will be returning in 2019. Junior Amber Fiser turned into the Gophers ace pitcher going 27-10 with a 1.69 ERA and recording 237 strikeouts in 244.1 innings pitched. She is getting early preseason accolades this spring being named a Preseason All-American by Fastpitchnews.com and Justin’s World of Softball. She was also one of five Big Ten players named to the USA Softball Top-50 Player of the Year Watch List.
Minnesota has a laundry list of pitchers who may step into the #2 role on the staff. The Gophers return senior Sydney Smith who transferred to the U from LSU in 2017. She saw action 23 games, starting eight and going 7-5 on the season. Junior Carlie Brandt developed into the #2 role a season ago pitching in 16 games, starting seven and going 7-2. Sophomores Rachel Lowery and Hannah Bailey may also see larger roles in 2019 after seeing just spot duty a year ago. As a team the Gopher pitching staff recorded a 1.90 ERA which was the second lowest in the Big Ten and 14th lowest in the NCAA a season ago, so with everyone returning, the Gophers hope to perform even better in the circle in 2019.
Offensively Minnesota will look to build on the freshman season of Ellee Jensen. The sophomore outfielder led the Gophers hitting .401 in 2018 and finished second on the team with 63 hits. Junior infielder Makenna Partain hit .375 a season ago and led the Gophers in hits with 69. She is the Gophers leadoff hitter and is coming off of a First Team All-Big Ten season.
The Gophers will look for senior leadership from Maddie Houlihan. She led the team in walks and was fourth in both batting average and home runs while playing right field. She is climbing up the Gopher career record books and is nearing top-five all-time in RBI, doubles and runs. She is also currently in the Minnesota top-10 for batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage.
Other players who return who should see everyday playing time include senior infielder Allie Arneson, and Brandt when she is not pitching.
The Gophers have a series of newcomers who will hopefully make an impact in 2019. They are led by Oregon State transfer Hope Brandner. The sophomore led the Beavers in home runs, RBI and doubles as a freshman and will slot into the Gophers lineup most likely at first base and provide pop to replace graduated Sydney Dwyer.
Minnesota has several freshmen who should see time this season led by Buffalo native and 2018 Ms. Softball from Minnesota Emily Hansen. The infielder/outfielder has pop and could produce a power threat in the Minnesota lineup. Catcher Josie White appears to be one of the best options to step in and try and replace Lindaman. The freshman was a top-100 recruit in 2018 and hit over .850 in high school. She may be able to provide some of the offense that Minnesota will miss.
It may be a learning curve in the non-conference season to try and find a lineup that works for head coach Jamie Trachsel and the Gophers, but after this initial weekend it will be a steep curve. The Gophers will face ten teams ranked in the preseason poll in their non-conference schedule, and that includes six games against teams currently ranked in the top ten. Minnesota will play a pair of road games at Alabama—the team that eliminated them from the 2017 NCAA Tournament. They will play a game at Arizona—the team that knocked them out of the 2015 NCAA Tournament. They get a game against 2018 NCAA Champion and current #1 Florida State in a week, and will get to play a game at a Florida team in Gainesville that how has their former best player on their roster. This is not an easy non-conference schedule. Minnesota will struggle against a majority of these teams, but if they are as good as they hope to be, they will need to find a way to steal a couple of wins from these top teams if they truly want to be considered to host a NCAA regional in May.
The non-conference portion of the schedule is once again nearly more important than the Big Ten portion. For the third year in a row the Gophers will not play Michigan in the Big Ten regular season. The Gophers and Wolverines are expected to finish 1-2 in some order in the conference standings just as they have for the last four seasons. If the Gophers want to impress the NCAA...they will need to win early and often to avoid a repeat of 2017.
The Gophers will play their first 32 games on the road/neutral sites before finally coming home to Jane Sage Cowles Stadium on March 29th for a series against Purdue . Minnesota currently has a 32 game home winning streak and with home series against Purdue, Michigan State, Iowa, and Northwestern along with mid-week doubleheaders against North Dakota State and South Dakota State, they Gophers will have ample opportunity to build on that streak.
They can get off to a good start this weekend in Orlando. Minnesota plays four games against teams they should defeat this weekend. They kick off their season Friday afternoon at the Friends of Jaclyn Tournament against North Florida at 4 PM and then immediately play host Central Florida at 6:30. Saturday the Gophers will play Ole Miss at 9 AM and then they finish off the weekend with George Mason on Sunday at 10:30 AM. Ohio State also is at the tournament, but the Gophers and Buckeyes will not face-off this weekend. Ole Miss will provide the stiffest challenge this weekend as they made the 2018 NCAA Tournament field and made the Tempe Regional Final before bowling out to Arizona State.
Live Stats for all of the Gophers games this weekend can be found HERE. Good luck to the Gophers as they begin 2019 with a bang.