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Minnesota Softball: NCAA College World Series Opening Round Preview vs UCLA

Minnesota opens up WCWS play against the two-time college player of the year

It’s Amber Fiser vs the World for the Gophers this weekend

The time has finally come. All the emotions from last Saturday have subsided, and there is a job to do once again. The Minnesota Golden Gophers softball team finally opens play at the Women’s College World Series Thursday afternoon when they take on the #2 seeded UCLA Bruins. The game will begin at 1:30 and air on ESPN.

We all know how the Gophers got to this point. Amber Fiser. The junior has thrown all 556 pitches for the Gophers thus far in the NCAA Tournament, and for as long as she can, Gopher head coach Jamie Trachsel appears ready to ride Fiser’s right arm. Why wouldn’t she? Fiser is 5-0 with a 0.78 ERA in the NCAA Tournament and had struck out 38 batters in 36 innings pitched. She was named a First Team All-American on Wednesday by Softball America. Minnesota will go as far as the Big Ten’s Pitcher of the Year will take them, but she can’t do it all herself.

The Gophers will need to score at least one run, and most likely more than that. That job will mainly be gien to the top four in the Minnesota batting order than have carried the load all season long. Leadoff batter Makenna Partain set a new Minnesota single season record for runs with 66 and counting and also leads the Gophers in batting average at .392. She was named an honorable mention All-American by Softball America. She is the table setter, with the three big bats behind her trying to get her in.

Senior Maddie Houlihan bats in the two-hole. While not the major power threat of the next two batters, Houlihan can find the big hit at the right moment as she did in Game 1 of the Super Regional sweep of LSU.

Minnesota’s power threats come up next. Sophomore Hope Brandner transferred in from Oregon State last fall and has been a huge boost to this Gopher lineup. She leads the team in home runs with 19—just one off of the program single season record. Her walk-off eighth inning home run to beat Georgia in the first of the meetings in the regional really gave Minnesota all the forward momentum it would need to advance to the next round. She was named a second team All-American by Softball America Wednesday.

Freshman Natalie DenHartog bats cleanup and has played beyond her age. The Top Three Finalist for the NFCA National Freshman of the Year award leads the Gophers in RBI with 63 and is in the top 12 in the nation. She earned her spot in the lineup after starting the season on the bench and has erupted in a huge way to get the Gophers where they are today.

While not the consistent threats that the top four are in the Minnesota lineup, the bottom five stepped up and played a huge role in the Super Regional clincher over the Tigers. Katelyn Kemmetmueller, Allie Arneson, Emma Burns, Carlie Brandt and Ali Lindner all contributed to the win and will hopefully be looked upon to help the Gophers put some runs across the plate this weekend.

What About UCLA?

The Bruins come into the opener against the Gophers flying high. There is a reason UCLA is the #2 national seed. They went 51-6 this season and have wins against #1 Oklahoma, #3 Washington, #5 Florida, and #6 Arizona. But the Wildcats did take two of three from UCLA in Los Angeles to close out the Pac-12 Regular season three weeks ago. So the Bruins can be beaten. UCLA also lost a game to a Big Ten team this season falling 3-1 to Michigan in March.

The Bruins are 5-1 in the NCAA Tournament this season with their only loss coming to the Missouri in regional play. The Bruins beat Mizzou 9-1 and 13-1 but lost 5-1 in the middle game. They would then go on to sweep James Madison in the Super Regional with relative ease 6-1 and 7-2.

Why are the Bruins so good? Lets start with Rachel Garcia. The junior has won nothing but awards since stepping on the field in Westwood. in 2017 she was the National Freshman of the Year. In 2018 she was the National Player of the Year. Then on Wednesday night she went back to back after she was awarded the National Player of the Year award for the second consecutive season. Why has she won nothing but awards? Because she’s just that good. Garcia is 24-1 this season with a 1.01 ERA. She has four saves as well for good measure. Garcia has 253 strikeouts in 166 innings pitched this season and has an opponent batting average of .153. Oh, and she also is a huge threat at the plate too. Garcia has hit .344 this season with nine home runs and 49 RBI. Yeah...that’s scary. The scariest part? She is not even one of the Bruins scariest offensive threats.

If you thought the LSU leadoff hitter was a threat every time she came to the plate last week, wait until you see UCLA’s Kelly Godin. The freshman is hitting an absurd .446 this season for the Bruins. Yet she only has 43 runs on the season placing her in third place on the UCLA roster. She has 23 stolen bases in 26 attempts. But, once again, that’s not even the best mark on the UCLA roster. Sophomore Briana Perez is second on the team in hitting at .397, and leads UCLA in runs with 65 and in hits with 75. She is 21-22 is stolen base attempts. Need someone to get those two players in? Meet Bubba Nickles. The junior also has 75 hits on the season to pace the Bruins, and she has done some damage hitting .395. She has 11 doubles, 16 home runs, and leads the Bruins with 69 RBI on the season. How about Taylor Pack? The senior is hitting .380 and has 13 doubles, 12 home runs and 48 RBIs on the season. Sophomore Alliyah Jordan? Batting .367, 19 doubles, ten home runs. The 1927 Yankees don’t have much on this lineup. That is six starters hitting .344 or higher. Seven starters with 30+ runs scored this season.

So we know UCLA can hit. And we know Garcia can pitch. The Gophers most likely will not see anyone from the UCLA staff besides Garcia, but if they do, their stats are also equally impressive. Megan Fariamo is 16-4 with a 1.42 ERA on the season. She has 143 strikeouts in 113 inning pitched, and is allowing opponents to hit just 1.65 off of her. Holly Azevedo is 11-1 with an ERA of 2.07 and 72 strikeouts in 88 innings. Not too shabby for your third pitcher.

How Does Minnesota Win?

The same way it has all through the NCAA Tournament. Seven innings of Amber Fiser greatness and a few lucky hits. Minnesota needs to do what they can to hit Garcia. Especially early. If Minnesota can grab an early lead and Fiser begins to shut down the Bruins, they are the ones who will get nervous. The Gophers have nothing to lose. They are playing with house money. This is Minnesota’s first ever trip to the Women’s College World Series. This is UCLA’s 29th and 5th consecutive. UCLA is supposed to win. But that doesn’t mean they will.

Why Not Us. The Gopher rallying cry all season long. They said Minnesota couldn’t beat tough teams from the SEC. Ask Georgia and LSU how that worked out. Now it’s the Pac-12 the Gophers have their sights on. Time to continue to road like a Lion and shine for another day!