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Minnesota Softball: 2023 Season Preview

The Gophers will look to bounce back from a disappointing 2022 season

Brad Rempel

The Minnesota Gophers softball team opens the 2023 season on Friday looking to relive the glory days of just a few years ago. Their 2019 run to the College World Series is only four season ago, but between COVID and a subpar 2022 season it feels like an eternity. Minnesota still had a few of the anchors from that tournament run on the roster, and have recruited new talent both from the high school ranks and in the transfer portal to hopefully fill the holes in the lineup and especially in the pitching rotation that were glaring in 2022. So here is a preview of the 2023 Minnesota Gophers softball squad.

2022 Recap?:

The Gophers has their worst season in recent memory in 2022 finishing with an overall record of 27-26-1. They finished 11-12 in Big Ten play which placed them in ninth place in the Big Ten standings. Despite a first round loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament, the Gophers did play a brutal non-conference slate, which raised their RPI high enough that they still earned a berth into the NCAA Tournament. Minnesota was sent to #1 Oklahoma’s regional, but never played the Sooners. Minnesota would face Texas A&M twice dropping two games to the Aggies split around a win over Prairie View A&M to end their season.

Minnesota struggled in the circle all season long with ace pitcher Autumn Pease limited by off-season shoulder surgery and freshman pitcher Emily Levitt not quite ready to play such a large role in her first season as the #2. Beyond that the Gophers #3 and 4 pitchers were not expected to see time in the circle and only did so after some early season transfers made it necessary. What had formerly been a strong suit of the Gopher program of the last few years was their weakness as the team finished with an ERA of 4.56 and an opponent batting average of .308.

Offensively the Gophers were led by senior Natalie DenHartog who hit .347 with 19 home runs. She returns for her COVID year this season and once again will be the top offensive threat for Minnesota.

Who’s Gone?

Minnesota will be missing several pieces of their 2022 roster, especially in the circle and in the infield. Minnesota had a trio of graduate transfers in Megan Dray, Lauren Espalin and Makenna Dowell all graduate. Espalin will be the biggest piece to replace as she was second on the team with a .340 batting average. Dowell started every game last season for the Gophers in the infield and hit 265. Dray started all but three games for Minnesota and hit .256. The Gophers graduated another trio of seniors who came up through the program in Ellee Jensen, Emily Hansen and Ali Lindner. Jensen started 43 games in the outfield for Minnesota hitting .281, while Hansen and Lindner came off the bench a majority of the time. Hansen hit .300 in 50 at bats and started 14 games, while Lindner saw action in 14 games.

Minnesota lost three transfers in the offseason who saw significant time in 2022. Catcher Sara Kinch had a great freshman season in 2021 but struggled to fins the same connection at the plate in 2022. Last year she started 51 games for the Gophers and hit just .233 with 7 home runs and 43 strikeouts. She is now at Arizona State.

Chole Evans started all 54 games for the Gophers either in the outfield or as the DH. She hit .318 with 11 home runs and led the team with 46 RBI. She transferred to Central Florida.

Emily Levitt was the #2 pitcher for the Gophers as a freshman a season ago and she looked great at times including a three hit shutout of #6 Northwestern, but struggled mightily at times. Due to Pease’s workload coming off the injury Levitt ended up leading the Gophers with 169.2 inning pitched. She finished the season with a 4.70 ERA and transferred to Texas A&M.

Who’s Back?

Minnesota returns three regular players and their #1 pitcher from a year ago. The Gophers team begins and ends with their leader in DenHartog. She was ranked the #41 player in the nation in the Extra Elite 100 Preseason Player Rankings by Extra Innings Softball. Last season she started all of Minnesota’s 54 games in center field and led the team with a .347 batting average and a .734 slugging percentage. She hit a career-best 19 home runs, one shy of the single-season program record, with 14 of her blasts coming in Gopher victories whihc ranked her 19th in the NCAA for total home runs, while her 127 total bases ranked 32nd nationally. In her three full seasons she has been named First Team All-Big Ten twice, and Second Team All-Big Ten once.

Joining her in returning are infielders Kayla Chavez and Sydney Strelow. Chavez started 51 games a season ago for Minnesota at third base as a freshman. She was tied for fourth on the team recording a .281 batting average and added a .350 on-base percentage with a .375 slugging percentage. She was named to the All-Big Ten defensive team and was the only freshman so honored. Strelow held down second base for the Gophers starting all 54 games there in 2022. She struggled to a .225 batting average, but earned the second most walks on the team with 25.

Hopefully returning to the circle at 100% this season is Autumn Pease. The Gopher grad student had shoulder surgery in the fall of 2021 and was put on a pitch count last season in many of her appearances. In 2022 she threw 157,2 innings and had a team leading 4.17 ERA. But at full strength in 2021 she was electric finishing the season with a 1.75 ERA and went 12-3 in 115 innings pitches. Minnesota would love to see that type of Pease back, and hopefully get another 60-75 innings out of her in 2023.

Also back on the roster in 2023 for Minnesota are a quartet of players who saw limited action in 2022. Delanie Cox was a late inning pinch hitting threat for Minnesota off the bench and she posted a .400 batting average, .600 slugging percentage and a .500 on-base percentage in 16 games. Nani Valencia was one of the players who was throw to the wolves in the circle as Minnesota’s third option. Coming in as an infielder she was not expected to pitch, but was called upon to and threw 12.1 innings going 1-1 with a 5.68 ERA. She made seven plate appearances in 2022 and went 2-4 with three walks. Maddie Ehlke played in five games a season ago for the Gophers drawing a pair of walks in four plate appearances. Clare Ceynowa was on the roster the past two seasons and is again in 2023 but has yet to see any game action.

Who’s New?

Quick answer—a lot. Minnesota has added six freshmen and five transfers to their roster for this season, and many are expected to make immediate impacts in the roster. Let’s look at the transfers first:

Amani Bradley is an outfielder who comes to the Gophers as a grad transfer after four seasons at Cal. She started 53 games last season for the Bears and hit .283. She is quite fast and will most likely bat near the top of the Gophers order.

Taylor Krapf is a catcher who transferred to the Gophers after her freshman season at Duke. Krapf only started three games a season ago for the Blue Devils but was a top recruit in 2022—ranked the #18 player in the country by Extra Innings Softball. She will be the Gophers starting catcher and hit in the back half of the lineup with the potential to move up if she shows her power potential.

Reili Gardner is an outfielder who comes to the Gophers after two seasons at Illinois State. She started 50 games a season ago for the Redbirds in center field. She finished third on the team in in batting average (.301), runs scored (24) and hits (43). She likely projects as a 3rd/fourth outfielder most likely in left or right field until DenHartog graduates.

The final two Gopher transfers are both pitchers. Gopher coach Piper Ritter made a concerted effort to try and find more talent for the Gophers in the circle this season, and the hope is that at least one of these two can step in and be a potential #2 behind Pease.

Bri Enter comes to the Gophers as a senior from Florida State. She played sparingly her first two seasons—one of which was the COVID 2020 season, and as a junior a year ago was the #3 pitcher for the Seminoles. She pitched in 12 games starting a pair for FSU finishing the season with a 2-0 record and a 1.44 ERA. The talent is there, she just has not had the ability to show it in a full season spot as of yet.

Jacie Hambrick comes to the Gophers from Grand Canyon University where she played two seasons. last season she appeared in 33 games and started 17 finishing with a 14-7 record, a 3.23 ERA and 60 strikeouts. Hambrick is more of a power pitcher and the Gophers hope they will find more magic from the WAC just like {Pease who played a season at Idaho State before coming to Minnesota.

Minnesota’s freshman class contains a pair of in-state players, and others from across the country spanning from Florida to California. The latter is the one that post Gopher fans are the most excited about.

Jess Oakland comes to the U from San Jose California where she absolutely tore up California High School Softball. Oakland was awarded Ms. Softball for the State of California and was a top-50 recruit in the nation. In her high school career she recorded 44 home runs, 159 RBI and 135 runs scored , all of which are ranked in the top 25 for a career in California. In her senior season she led the state of California hitting 21 home runs and registered a .578 batting average, .678 on-base percentage and a 1.433 slugging percentage. She has already been slotted in as the starting shortstop for the Gophers and hopefully a four-year star.

Sydney Schwartz is the next freshman who should make an impact. The Victoria, MN native was the 2022 Star Tribune Player of the Year and the Gatorade Minnesota Softball Player of the Year in both 2021 and 2022. She is a true duel threat player as she excelled both in the circle and at the plate in her high school career. Her junior year for Chanhassen, Schwartz was 21-2 with a 0.95 earned run average. At the same time she hit .578 with 11 home runs, 26 runs scored and 31 RBI along with a .713 on-base percentage and a 1.219 slugging percentage. Schwartz has the potential to be the Gophers next great ace while also allowing them to substitute a different position as the designated player if she can hit to the potential she did in high school.

Breezy Burnett comes to the Gophers from Jacksonville, Florida as an outfielder. A legitimate speed demon she has the potential to play all three outfield spots and be a burner on the basepaths.

Addison Leschber comes the the U from Thrall, Texas and the ability to play in the infield or the outfield. She was the top first baseman in Texas in 2022 and hit .687 with an on-base percentage of .775 during her junior season.

Maggie Werner comes from Greenville, Wisconsin where she played the infield. She was a second team All-State nominee with a .425 batting average with an .805 slugging percentage during her senior year.

Billi Connell is the second Minnesotan freshman on the roster coming from Luverne. As an outfielder she was named All-State in 2018, 2021 and 2022.


The Gophers are taking a step back from their usual insanely tough non-conference schedule this spring. Minnesota still will see a few ranked opponents but it will not be nearly every other game like the past few seasons. The Gophers open play this weekend at the Northern Lights Tournament in Leesburg, Florida where they will take on Western Kentucky twice, Butler, Portland State and Colgate. The following weekend it’s the Big Ten/ACC Challenge in Chapel Hill where they will play a pair of games each against North Carolina and Virginia. A tournament in Waco Texast the next weekend also finds the Gophers playing all unranked opponents.

The schedule finally gets real when the calendar flips over to March. Minnesota will head to the Judy Garman Classic in Fullerton, California where they will see Oregon and LSU, both who are ranked to start the season. The Gophers then return home to play indoors for the first time in a very long time hosting the Gopher Indoor Classic at US Bank Stadium. One final non-conference weekend again sees no currently ranked teams before Minnesota opens up Big Ten play at conference favorite and current #7 ranked team in the nation to open the year Northwestern. The Gophers finish the regular season with a visit from perennial Big Ten power Michigan—though without long time head coach Carol Hutchins who retired after last season.


Minnesota should hopefully be better than last season, but until we know exactly what they have in the circle, its tough to make a full prediction. If the Gophers can get consistent pitching, and Pease is back to 100%, then Minnesota should be a top-half of the Big Ten team and should easily make the NCAA Tournament. But if the pitching still is not where it needs to be, and Minnesota relies too heavily on freshmen to carry a large percentage of the load on offense, it could be another long season. Hopefully after these first few weeks of non-conference action we should have a better idea of exactly how the Gophers look this year.