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Hope Brandner’s walk-off blast powers Gophers to regional final

Gophers softball players mob Hope Brandner after she hit a walk-off home run in the eighth inning to lift Minnesota past Georgia 2-1 in an NCAA regional softball game Saturday at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- Hope Brandner had been fooled by off-speed pitches on a couple occasions on Saturday afternoon.

So, standing in the box in the bottom of the eighth inning with the game tied 1-1, the Gophers first baseman was looking for the changeup, and only the changeup.

“I just decided to sit back on the changeup and drive through it the best that I could,” Brandner said, “and just see what I could do with it.”

She pummeled it. Brandner knew she hit it well, but wasn’t 100% positive the ball was going over the fence.

No one else had any doubt. The second Gophers ace Amber Fiser saw the ball leave the bat, she started sprinting through the dugout, focused solely on not tripping over anyone on her way out to the field to celebrate.

Gophers coach and Duluth native Jamie Trachsel immediately started jumping for joy. She admitted she didn’t even see the ball go over the wall. She didn’t need to.

“She crushed that,” Trachsel said.

Brandner’s blast sailed over the fence in left center, skipping off the football practice facility wall and sending the Gophers, the No. 7 national seed, to the Minneapolis regional final via a 2-1 walk-off win over Georgia.

“It was just pure excitement,” said Brandner, who transferred to the U from Oregon State last offseason. “[I was] so proud and just happy.”

Minnesota will play whoever advances through the loser’s bracket in Sunday’s regional final, needing just one win in two games to advance to next weekend’s Super Regional.

That’s a long way from the brink of elimination, where the Gophers found themselves just an inning earlier.

Fiser was dominant for the second time in as many games in this regional. Less than a day after tossing a three-hit shutout against North Dakota State, Fiser held Georgia’s potent offense hitless through five innings Saturday.

Then, in the top of the sixth, Georgia junior Jordan Doggett ran into a Fiser pitch and sent it over the fence in center to give the Bulldogs their first hit, and a 1-0 lead.

“I knew that they were going to get hits, and it just sucks that that one went out as a home run,” Fiser said. “But there was nothing I could do about it. I missed my pitch and she took a hold of it.”

Fiser finished off the sixth inning and held Georgia scoreless in the top of the seventh. She was brilliant, but on the verge of being a tough-luck loser. Minnesota (43-12) was down to its final three outs with its bottom of the order due up in the seventh.

But Ali Lindner drew a walk, then Taylor Chell was hit by a pitch. In between nearly every pitch, Trachsel threw her arms in the air, imploring the Gophers’ faithful to raise the volume just a decibel or two higher. Georgia’s coaching staff was trying to keep its players calm. The crowd was making that a nearly impossible feat.

Suddenly, the Gophers had a runner in scoring position with one out, and leadoff hitter MaKenna Partain at the dish. Fiser had a “gut feeling” Partain was due for a hit.

“I knew that she was going to come through for us,” Fiser said. “She was looking for her pitch, she was ready and it showed.”

Partain went after the first pitch, as Trachsel has seen her do so many times this season, and laced a single up the middle. Trachsel vigorously waved Lindner home, and she slid in safely to tie the score.

“There’s a lot of confidence in Kenna and that’s why she leads off for us. In any big moment, she’s someone you want up at the plate,” Trachsel said. “It’s just who she is. … Kenna, she’s a winner.”

Fiser came back out to pitch the eighth. She was set to face Alyssa DiCarlo, Georgia’s best player, with two outs and a runner on base. Gophers pitching coach Piper Ritter came out to the circle. Fiser wondered if Ritter might suggest Fiser walk DiCarlo. That wasn’t the case.

“She said go right at her, trust your stuff and know that you’ve trained to get here,” Fiser said. “It’s kind of the pep talk I needed.”

Fiser struck DiCarlo out for her eighth strikeout of the game. The ace surrendered just two hits in eight innings.

That set the table for Brandner to serve as the hero in the bottom of the frame.

“Amber threw probably one of the best games that she’d thrown all season,” Brandner said. “It was just an amazing game. I just wanted her to know that we had her back.”

That message was sent, loud and clear, when Brandner sent the ball over the fence.

Saturday marked Minnesota’s first comeback occurring in the sixth inning or later all season. The Gophers had previous rallies come close, only to come up short, just as they’d done in previous regionals in recent years.

Not Saturday.

“Today was a turning point for our team,” Trachsel said, “figuring out and finding a way to win this game.”

Perhaps, this team is indeed different.

“I think that proved to us that we belong to be here,” Brandner said, “and we deserve this.”

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