Minnesota Gophers softball seniors faced a decision last offseason — stay or go?

In the weeks and months after what was supposed to be their final season was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, spring sport seniors were granted another season by the NCAA.

The deal sounded great. Take the extra year and extend your career. But there was more to consider. Take Katelyn Kemmetmueller, for example. The Rogers High School graduate had her nursing license and was debating whether she should start her professional career.

But Kemmetmueller and three fellow seniors — Carlie Brandt, Amber Fiser and MaKenna Partain — all made the decision to return to play in 2021.

“I think at the end of the day, I realized that I have the rest of my life to work as a nurse, and my time clock as an athlete was going to expire here if I didn’t take this fifth year,” Kemmetmueller said this week. “I’m really, really glad that I decided to take this fifth year, because I know it was the right choice, and it’s been a blessing.”

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This senior class has led the Gophers to another NCAA regional, their fourth in four tries. Minnesota (29-11) takes on Fresno State (36-10) in its postseason opener at 7 p.m. CST Friday in the UCLA regional. The Bruins (41-4), the No. 2 seed in the country, face Long Beach State (30-9) in the other semifinal of the four-team regional.

This is where the Gophers always expected to be. They played in the 2019 Women’s College World Series — their last postseason competition.

“I think we’re just super excited to be back playing postseason softball,” Kemmetmueller said. “It’s exciting to see somebody else on the docket coming up. Looking back on 2019, I think it was really cool we got to host, we got to play at home all the way up to the World Series. But I think what’s exciting about this year is the challenge. We get to go on the road, we get to go upset some teams and go win somewhere else other than our home field, and I think just going into it with the confidence that we can do it, and just making sure the younger kids, they haven’t really gotten to experience other teams outside of the Big Ten year. I think we’re ready for it. We can do this. It’s exciting, it’s fun and we’re all really excited to get onto the road.”

Brandt called this season a “special year.” It was an all-Big Ten schedule for the Gophers. Minnesota played under first-year head coach Piper Ritter, who has been with the program throughout the careers of these seniors.

“I could not be happier that I came back for a fifth year. I am so grateful to have done it with some really great fifth-year seniors who also made the decision to come back,” Brandt said. “You just get to expand your growth as a softball player, but now you’re also meeting new people, new mentors, new experiences, and it’s just shaping you more into the people you’re going to be down the road, and I couldn’t be more grateful.”

Ritter is grateful so many seniors came back for this season. She always tells them that at no other point in their lives will they be a part of a group this big and work this hard for one common goal.

“Some of the greatest years I had were playing softball and, obviously, playing it as a Gopher, so for them to be able to come back, I’m glad the NCAA awarded them another opportunity,” Ritter said. “I believe that all of them were thankful for it, and I’m happy that they chose to stay here and be a Gopher. So it’s been great having them, but I also think that they deserve it.”

Perhaps this Gophers team, with its strong senior leadership, will make another deep postseason run. It’s also possible this weekend could be the final chapter for this senior class. Either way, they will have a say in the matter. The same couldn’t be said a year ago, when — while eating breakfast at a Denny’s in the midst of a road trip — these seniors believed their careers were ending at the hands of a virus.

“It gives you peace of mind to know that we as the senior class, we as Gopher Softball, have the last say in our season,” Kemetmueller said.

“Closure is a big piece of this,” Brandt said. “Softball has obviously been a huge piece of our lives forever, and Gophers Softball has a really special place in our hearts, so having the closure on our own terms is something that is going to give us peace of mind down the road.”