The Minnesota Gophers softball team will look to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the 9th consecutive season—not including the COVID shortened 2020 season, but will need to get some great play from some new blood after losing some of the best to ever play for the program. Minnesota opens their 2022 season this weekend in a tournament at Central Florida with five games in three days.
Minnesota will open the 2022 season with several all-big ten players on the roster, but with plenty of questions as well. The Gophers were predicted by most outlets to finish in third place in the Big Ten this season behind Michigan and Northwestern. But, if the Gophers can get some great play from some of their newcomers, be them old or young, there is no reason why Minnesota can’t compete for a Big Ten title once again.
The biggest question for Minnesota this season will be the pitching staff. Gone is Gopher legend Amber Fiser who is now an assistant coach with Missouri. Returning is the pitcher who was better than Fiser in 2021 in senior Autumn Pease. Pease had a breakout year in 2021 finishing with a 12-3 record, and a 1.75 ERA that ranked fourth in the conference, Her strength is her control as she issued just 1.2 walks per seven innings a season ago, which was 25th in the NCAA. D1Softball.com ranked her the #5 player in the Big Ten, and she will need to be the ace for the Gophers every weekend. But the bigger question is who will take over the #2 pitcher spot for Minnesota. Besides Pease and Fiser only two other Gophers saw tie in the circle last season in Ava Dueck and Kianna Jones. Both transferred in the offseason leaving a very large question mark for Minnesota to fill. The Gophers will have two main choices to try and fill that spot. Ansleigh Hollifield is a sophomore who is a Georgia native. She played in five games last season in substitute duty for the Gophers, but not as a pitcher. In high school at Buford High she was the Region 8AAAAA pitcher of the year in 2019 and averaged 11.9 strikeouts per game. The second option is freshman Emily Leavitt from Chino California. She comes in highly touted as the nation’s No. 21 overall prospect in the 2021 class by Extra Innings Softball and No. 26 by Softball America. Leavitt most likely has the inside track as the #2 pitcher with the hopes she becomes the Gophers ace once Pease graduated and moves on.
On offense Minnesota returns some top of the conference talent, but will need to fill some huge holes. Minnesota needs a new second baseman after Makenna Partain graduated after five years as one of the best Gophers of all-time. The Gophers brought in a freshman who is expected to make an immediate impact along with adding a pair of transfers from the SEC and Pac-12 that should step into the daily lineup right away.
First the key returners for the Gophers. Outfielder Natalie DenHartog returns for her senior season as one of the best power hitters in the nation. She enters the season with 39 career home runs, just 12 off of the program record. DenHartog is currently averaging one home run per 10.1 trips to the plate and has added 121 RBI across 116 games played while hitting .366 for her career. She is joined in the outfield with senior Elle Jensen who returned to the Gopher lineup in 2021 after dealing with injuries the seasons prior. A career .372 hitter, she is more of a singles hitter but can steal you a base once she gets on as a table setter. Sophomore Catcher Sara Kinch is back after being named to the Big Ten A—Freshman team in 2021. Second on the team with 9 home runs a year ago, she is your typical risk/reward power hitter—-who also led the team in strike outs. She can play a great defensive game behind the plate as well and committed just one error a season ago. Senior utility player Emily Hansen from Buffalo, Minnesota returns after leading the team with 10 doubles a season ago. Hansen can play the outfield, first base or be a designated player as needed and can help round out a lineup. Other returners for Minnesota who played significant time a year ago and can be expected to see significant playing time again this year include sophomore infielder Sydney Strelow who started 38 games a year ago for the Gophers, sophomore outfielder Makenzie Denson who started 21 games, and UNC transfer and now grad student Megan Dray who started 29 games a year ago for Minnesota.
The Gophers have a pair of freshman other than Leavitt who join the program, and they bring in a pair of transfers who should work their way into the lineup. Joining Leavitt is her club teammate and also highly rated player in infielder Kayla Chavez. Chavez was ranked No. 31 in the 2021 recruiting class by Extra Innings Softball. She was a hitting machine in high school earning national All-American honors and is a two-time California All-State player. She will most likely play a large roll for Minnesota this season. Less likely to see lots of playing time is freshman Nani Valencia from Georgetown, Kentucky. The infielder was two-time All-State in Kentucky and was named a high school All-American by Extra Innings Softball by holding a batting average of .526 with 31 home runs and 124 RBI during her prep career.
The Gophers hit the transfer portal and brought in a SEC starter who will jump into the Gopher lineup. Auburn transfer Makenna Dowell started all 51 games for the Tigers at shortstop a season ago leading Auburn with 41 hits and 19 RBI. Joining her in transferring in is was Cal outfielder Lauren Espalin. She started 28 games a year ago for the Bears hitting .318 which ranked third on the team, while adding a .402 on-base percentage and a .447 slugging percentage. She immediately will fight for playing time in the Gopher outfield.
Minnesota should have enough depth on the field and in the batters box. If they can get a true #2 pitcher, there is no reason why the Gophers can’t compete for a Big Ten title yet again. The Gophers once again will play a very strong non-conference schedule against some of the nations best teams, many on their home fields. The Gophers first test this weekend will be a pair of games against #12 Georgia. The Gophers and Bulldogs are set to open the season at 3PM Friday afternoon, and then match up again at 10:30 AM Saturday. In the middle will be a game against the host UCF Knights at 5:30 Friday night in a game that will stream live on ESPN+. Minnesota finishes the weekend with a game against Longwood Saturday afternoon at 3:30 and a Sunday morning tilt against Fresno State at 8:30. Live stats will be available for all five games HERE.
Good luck to the Gophers as they open what will hopefully be a successful season.