MINNEAPOLIS -- Maddie Houlihan went 0 for 8 last weekend in regional play, but the Gophers overcame the senior outfielder’s offensive struggles to go 3-0.
That would not have happened Friday.
For the first time this postseason, ace pitcher Amber Fiser wasn’t nearly perfect. Neither was the Gophers’ defense.
Minnesota needed something — or someone — to spark its offense to make up for it all.
The senior stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the third inning, with the Gophers trailing 1-0, knowing one thing about the first pitch of the at-bat — if it was a strike, “I was going to take my hack.”
“I sure did,” Houlihan said.
And the ball sure flew. Houlihan blasted the pitch over the wall in left-center field to knot the score at 1-1.
She came back to the plate in the bottom of the fourth, with Minnesota trailing 3-1 with two outs and a runner on first. Again, Houlihan delivered, smashing a ball to the gap, again to the opposite field in left center — the surest sign her swing is right — for a double, which plated MaKenna Partain.
That sparked a four-run fourth inning that led Minnesota to a 5-3 victory over 10th-seeded LSU on Friday, May 24, in the opener of the best-of-three Super Regional at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium. It was the Gophers’ first Super Regional victory in school history.
Minnesota claims a 1-0 series lead and is now one win away from the program’s first trip to the Women’s College World Series.
Game 2 is set for 5 p.m. Saturday on the U of M campus. A third game, if necessary, would be played at 3 p.m. Sunday.
Amid a raucous crowd of 1,344 fans — the second largest in Jane Sage Cowles history — Houlihan made the most noise. Not bad for someone whose bat was silent a week earlier.
“It’s just a testament to this team that a different person is going to step up every single game,” Houlihan said. “I think that just is what a complete team is that you don’t have to rely on one or two people to get the job done. I guess today was my day to step up for the team.”
All season, Gophers coach Jamie Trachsel has touted her team’s ability to win different ways. Yet seventh-seeded Minnesota’s formula for success in its regional was pretty similar on a game-to-game basis — ride Fiser’s right arm to victory.
That wasn’t possible Friday, as LSU’s offense was able to generate some production against Minnesota’s stingy ace. The Tigers took a 1-0 lead in the third inning on a strikeout, as a wild third strike got away from Gophers catcher Emma Burns, who made things worse with an errant throw to first, which brought in the Tigers’ first run.
The Tigers (43-18) regained 3-1 advantage in the fourth on the strength of three hits. Multi-run deficits often marked defeat for the Gophers in past postseasons. But Houlihan noted there’s a different belief this season.
“I thought our offense was more than capable to put up a run or two every single inning,” she said, “and I think we proved that.”
The Gophers (45-12) piled up five runs on seven hits and seven walks. After Houlihan’s double in the fourth, Natalie DenHartog tied the score 3-3 with a single, and Allie Arneson plated the last two runs of the inning with a single to right.
“Today was a good day for the offense, and it really showed,” Fiser said. “We wouldn’t have won it without them.”
That offense simply needed a spark to get the fire burning. On Friday, that was Houlihan. She thinks her second-inning blast might have relaxed her teammates.
That was needed. This was the Gophers’ first time hosting the Super Regional. They weren’t playing their best softball early.
“There’s just so many emotions that come from playing on a stage like this,” Trachsel said. “We just kind of kept telling our kids to breathe. Take a deep breath and breathe.”
And they responded.
LSU put two runners on base in the seventh inning, but Fiser shut the door, inducing a lazy fly ball to center for the final out on her career-high 147th pitch.
Trachsel commended her team’s fight, resiliency and determination, adding she thought “Maddie led that whole charge.”
“I loved the fact that when they punched, we were able to punch back,” Houlihan said. “I think that’s a huge credit to the offense, and just being resilient.”