OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — There’s a reason the Gophers softball team walks around with a massive chip on its collective shoulder. At every turn over the past 24 months, the U has been left to pick up the pieces after being told they have no business competing with the nation’s powerhouse programs.
It started a couple of years ago when the program was passed over for a chance to host an NCAA Regional despite entering the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 team in the nation.
Those feelings of disappointment festered a while and intensified a couple of months later when coach Jessica Allister jumped at the opportunity to coach her alma mater, Stanford. Then star player Kendyl Lindaman bolted for Florida, citing a better chance to further her career.
Who’s leaving now?
The program few believed in that has proved doubters wrong yet again. On Thursday, the Gophers begin their first College World Series against UCLA.
“We kind of operate well as the underdog,” coach Jamie Trachsel said with a smile. “We are OK with that role.”
It starts with Trachsel, who has gotten her team to fully embrace being underdogs while upping the ante since the Big Ten tournament ended May 12. Whether it was showing “Rocky IV” to the team during the NCAA Regional, or blaring Aerosmith’s “Dream On” over the PA during practice, Trachsel has gotten her players to rally around the fact that nobody is giving them a chance.
That will continue when the seventh-seeded Gophers open the double-elimination tournament against 12-time champion and No. 2 seed UCLA at 1:30 p.m. (ESPN).
“We know everyone is going to overlook us,” ace starting pitcher Amber Fiser said. “It’s our first time ever going to the College World Series. We have learned to embrace it. We could be the No. 1 team in the country and we still aren’t going to feel like it.”
In a lot of ways, being the underdog heading into the College World Series has taken a lot of pressure off the Gophers. They weren’t supposed to make it this far, so it’s almost like playing with house money the rest of the way.
“It just allows us to play free,” outfielder Maddie Houlihan said. “We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. All the teams there have been there before. We are the only team without the experience and I think that’s awesome and something we can use to our advantage. We can go right at opponents and really enjoy the experience.”
Ask any Gophers player, though, and they would say they have every intention of going out and competing this weekend. As happy as they are to be at the College World Series, they aren’t just happy to be there — and they know they’re good.
The host Gophers were undefeated in the NCAA tournament’s only regional with four 40-win teams, then swept seventh-ranked LSU with consecutive wins in the Super Regional. Still, they know where they stand — at least from an outsider’s perspective.
Asked if she thinks anyone is actually picking the Gophers this weekend, Trachsel smiled and responded, “I hope not.”
That’s exactly the way the Gophers want it.
“It’s something we’re comfortable with as a program,” designated player Natalie DenHartog said. “It’s where we want to be. We want to be the underdog. We want to be underestimated. We want to prove some people wrong. That’s what we’re out to do.”