Gophers heading to first NCAA College World Series
MINNEAPOLIS -- Back in the fall, during one of the first practices of the season, Gophers softball coach Jamie Trachsel sat her players down along the backstop and turned up the volume.
“Dream On” by Aerosmith blasted out of the stadium’s speakers, and Minnesota’s coach threw out the loftiest goals, such as reaching the Women’s College World Series.
“Why not you guys?” Trachsel asked her team. “Dream big. Why can’t you do that?”
MaKenna Partain’s eyes welled up as the song played.
“Because it’s just a cool thing to dream about,” Partain said.
It’s another thing to live it, as the Gophers proved Saturday.
The seventh-seeded Gophers were on the cusp of program history, protecting a 3-0 lead with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, with 1,288 fans — mostly Gophers faithful — roaring in the background.
Minnesota ace Amber Fiser induced a ground ball that skipped toward Partain. She admitted to briefly freaking out, the weight of history prevalent in her mind in the game’s waning moments, before calmly picking up the ball and tossing it to first baseman Hope Brandner to record the final out, clinching Minnesota’s first Super Regional victory — a two-game sweep of 10th-seeded LSU — and, with it, the program’s first NCAA Women’s College World Series appearance.
The Gophers advanced to a College World Series in 1976 and1978 when it was an event run by the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. This is Minnesota’s first World Series berth since the NCAA event started in 1982.
The dream is now reality.
Players sprinted toward Fiser in the circle, slowing only to hoist their gloves high into the air before piling on top of their pitching ace.
The final destination for the journey that started at the backstop last fall is Oklahoma City. Very few, if any, saw that coming.
The Gophers softball program has been one of the Big Ten’s best for years. On an annual basis, Minnesota has put itself in a good position to achieve postseason success, only to have its run thwarted by snub or heartbreak.
Even when the Gophers earned the No. 1 ranking in the country two years ago, winning 54 games before the NCAA tournament, they were relegated to a regional in Alabama, and promptly bounced there.
Always the underdog, as Fiser noted Saturday.
Maybe that was as good as it was meant to get for a program such as Minnesota. Maybe competing for conference titles and merely reaching NCAA regional play was all to which a northern program should aspire.
The Gophers rewrote the narrative Saturday, closing out LSU (43-19) without much drama. Minnesota (46-12) required the minimum of five games to breeze through the postseason to reach next week’s World Series.
It did so with an ace in Fiser who trumped fatigue and logic by pitching a three-hit shutout Saturday, a day after tossing a career-high 147 pitches in a 5-3 win over the Tigers. LSU, a Southeastern Conference power, collectively dubbed Fiser one of the best pitchers in the land after the game.
It did so with a top four in the batting order that can go toe-to-toe with any top four in the country.
And it did so with a total team effort. Even with that top four, it was the Gophers’ bottom part off the order that scored all three runs Saturday.
It was Allie Arneson who got things going, blasting a home run over the fence in left-center to make it 1-0 Gophers in the fifth. Minnesota tacked on two more runs in the seventh to make Fiser’s final frame a little less stressful.
Few would’ve guessed this team would reach these heights. After slugging catcher Kendyl Lindaman transferred to Florida and star center fielder Ellee Jensen went down with an injury early in the season, Minnesota was without five of its top seven hitters from a season ago.
“So many people said you can’t do it. We didn’t have this, we lost this, we lost that,” Trachsel said. “Who are these kids? They don’t have the experience.”
Partain said the Gophers’ developed a “prove-you-wrong” type of mentality. No one was going to tell them they couldn’t do something.
The doubters now have no choice but to believe.
“We came together instead of pulling apart,” Trachsel said. “I think when you keep overachieving, you just keep winning and proving people wrong, it’s a great compliment.”
“Dream big, why not us?” has been a rallying cry of sorts for the Gophers this season. They had it printed out on a sign. But not until Saturday, while sitting at the postgame press table, did Trachsel share the message’s origin.
As she did, Partain again started to cry.
“It actually just came to my mind that we’re actually going to the Women’s College World Series,” Partain said, “and it’s pretty awesome.”
During her postgame television interview with ESPN, Trachsel was asked, amid all the celebration and hoopla, what she was thinking in that very moment.
“Minnesota,” she said, “is a place you can chase your dreams.”