The Minnesota Gophers softball team will begin play Friday evening in the Seattle Regional of the NCAA Softball tournament. It’s the tenth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance for the Gophers which is the longest streak in program history, and is the longest active streak in the Big Ten. Minnesota is looking to advance out of the regional to the Super Regional for the third time in program history and the first time since their run to the Women’s College World series in 2019. It will not be easy as they will need to get past the host #7 national seed Washington Huskies, Northern Colorado Bears, and their opening opponent on Friday the McNeese Cowgirls.
In a double elimination format where a team cold play up to five games over three days, pitching and depth of a pitching staff is crucial to a team. Minnesota brings in one of the best pitchers in the nation on Autumn Pease the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year. Pease enters the regional with a 26-7 record with a 1.45 ERA and 256 strikeouts. Nationally, she is sixth overall in strikeouts, fifth overall in wins, and 24th in ERA. It’s behind Pease that things get a bit more questionable. Minnesota is going to need at least one great performance from their #2 pitcher Jacie Hambrick. The Grand Canyon transfer has gone 7-6 this season with a 2.33 era and 58 strikeouts.
Minnesota’s top and middle of the order has delivered when needed this season. The Gophers have three Big Ten First Team members on offense including third baseman Kayla Chavez, shortstop Jess Oakland and catcher Taylor Krapf. Add in second team outfielder Natalie DenHartog and the Gophers can put the bat on the ball. Krapf leads the team in the triple crown categories of batting average, home runs and Rbi. She and the rest of the Gopher offense will need to provide some key hits as Pease and company will have a major challenge against some of the other teams in the region.
The Gophers open up the regional at 5:30 Friday night against the McNeese Cowgirls. The southland Conference Champions are ranked #36 in the RPI and have defeated a pair of ranked teams this season in the host Huskies and LSU. They have had a great season and come into the tournament having won 18 of their last 20 games with a current 10-game winning streak. They set a school record with 44 wins this season.
At the plate the Cowgirls have a quartet of players hitting over .300 on the season. Alayis Seneca leads the way with a .373 average with 62 hits. She is also a speedster going 22-24 on stolen base attempts this season. Reese Reyna has a .331 average and also runs a ton with 24 stoles bases in 28 attempts on the season. Chloe Gomez (.310) and Corine Poncho (.301) also can hit. The Cowgirls are not a power hitting team with the entire roster hitting just 20 home runs this season and Crislyne Moreno leading the roster with five.
McNeese has a triple threat of pitchers who have excelled this season. Senior Whitney Tate (16-4) and juniors Ashley Vallejo (18-8) and Shaelyn Sanders (7-0) have shut down opponents left and right. Tate is their ace coming in with a 1.35 ERA, but does not strike out many batters recording just 76 strikeouts in 150 innings pitched.
The Cowgirls went 6-1 against common opponents on the Gophers schedule this season. They went 1-1 against ranked LSU, swept a three game series from Texas A&M Commerce, and defeated Idaho State. Minnesota went 2-1 against those same opponents losing to LSU. The teams have met one time in history with the Gophers picking up a 6-0 win in 1994.
The host Washington Huskies earned the #7 national seed after going 16-8 in the Pac-12 and taking second in the conference. At the plate Washington is led by first baseman Bailee Klingler who leads the team in batting average at .406, home runs with 11, and RBI with 44. Right fielder Madison Huskey is right behind hitting .313 with 11 home runs and 41 RBI.
In the circle the Huskies can go four deep. Freshman Ruby Meylan has been their ace going 16-5 with a 2.11 ERA and 178 strikeouts in 152 innings pitched. Kelley Lynch is 11-2 with a 2.41 ERA and 98 K’s.
Washington has been a NCAA Tournament mainstay. They have existed for 30 years as a program and have appeared in 29 straight regionals dating back to 1994 - the second year of Washington softball. Washington has the fourth-most NCAA Tournament wins all-time (128) and fourth-most WCWS appearances (14). They will be a very tough out on their home field. They went 7-3 against common opponents with the Gophers this season defeating Loyola Marymount, Seattle, San Diego State, Michigan State, Arizona State and Oregon twice, while losing to Oregon and Arizona State twice. Minnesota went 5-3 defeating Loyola Marymount, Arizona State, Oregon and Michigan State twice while losing to Seattle, San Diego State, and Michigan State. Washington is 10-1-1 all-time against the Gophers with their most recent victory coming in the 2019 College World Series ending Minnesota’s run.
Northern Colorado went on a run through the Big Sky Tournament as the 4th seed. They would knock off Idaho State twice on the final day to earn the automatic bid to the NCAA Championships. They have a 26-21 record on the season.
At the plate the Bears are led by Alyssa Wenzel who hit .373 with a pair of home runs and 29 RBI. Lauren Strathern was right behind at .372. In the circle Erin Cavinness led the way with a 15-8 record, a 3.55 ERA and 133 strikeouts.
The bears went 8-5 against common opponents with the Gophers this season losing a pair to South Dakota State and three to Idaho State. Minnesota went 4-0 against common opponents. Minnesota and Northern Colorado have never faced one another.
A breakdown of all four teams is below courtesy of the Washington game notes:
The full regional schedule is below. Friday’s games will stream on ESPN+. TV designations for Saturday and Sunday are TBD with broadcasts on either the ESPN family of networks, or ESPN+. All times below are CDT.
Friday, May 19:
Game 1- 5:30 p.m. No. 3 seed McNeese vs. No. 2 Seed Minnesota—ESPN+
Game 2- 8 p.m. No. 4 seed Northern Colorado vs. No. 1 seed Washington ESPN+
Saturday, May 20:
Game 3- 4 p.m. Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2
Game 4- 6:30 p.m. Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2
Game 5- 9 p.m. Loser Game 4 vs. Loser Game 3
Sunday, May 21:
Game 6- 3 p.m. Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 5
Game 7- 5:30 p.m. Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 6 (if necessary)
The winner will advance to play the winner of the LSU regional in the Super Regional next weekend.
Good luck to the Gophers!