Gophers 'embracing the opportunity' of home regional

Home field advantage doesn’t guarantee anything as the University of Minnesota softball team gets ready to host the Minneapolis Regional in this weekend’s NCAA Tournament.

The Gophers (41-12) know that, and they're embracing the challenge that awaits this weekend.

The mindset has changed from shock and excitement to preparation as the Gophers face their first home regional since 2014. The three opponents coming to town, North Dakota State, Drake and Georgia, all have RPIs in the top 45 in the country.

“You’re not going to be able to take a game off. It’s postseason, anything can happen. Why would you want it to be easy? If we’re going to come out of this regional on top, why not play in the toughest regional?” Gophers senior and Plymouth native Maddie Houlihan said. “I think we’re just kind of embracing the challenge and looking forward to the opportunity that we have playing at home.”

It’s also another chance to put Minnesota softball on the national map. With getting the No. 7 seed, it guarantees the Gophers (41-12) would host a Super Regional if they get through this weekend. It means the road to the College World Series could go through Minneapolis.

They’ve had chances before, and not been named a host. The Gophers were sent to Seattle last year and were eliminated by No. 5-ranked Washington.

Two years ago was a tougher pill to swallow. Despite winning 54 games and a Big Ten title before the NCAA Tournament, the Gophers were sent to Alabama. The season ended in a pair of 1-0 losses to the Crimson Tide.

The Gophers have a big opportunity with a home regional this weekend, and they’re ready for it.

“Nothing was ever handed to this program easily. Every team has had to work and fight for the respect and success that they’ve earned, and this team is no different,” freshman and Hopkins native Natalie Denhartog said. “We’re part of that legacy, and we’re excited. We fought for this opportunity, and we’re excited to take advantage of it.”

Friday will be a bittersweet night for Minnesota coach Jamie Trachsel. She spent 14 seasons on the coaching staff at North Dakota State, the Gophers’ opponent, before taking over at Minnesota two seasons ago.

Trachsel was the coach at North Dakota State when they came to Minnesota for an NCAA regional in 2014, the first year the Bison were eligible after making the leap to Division I. They pulled off an upset of Auburn in their first game, before falling to the Gophers in 10 innings. Their season ended in a 1-0 loss to Auburn.

“I professionally and personally grew up there. That place will always be special,” Trachsel said. “Ton of special memories and relationships that I’ll have forever.”

The Gophers know they’re in for a battle this weekend, regardless of who they play. Drake has an RPI of 22, Georgia’s is 26 and North Dakota State’s is 44, and the Bison have one of the better pitching duos in the country. KK Leddy is 22-8 with a 2.22 earned run average and 174 strikeouts in 186 1/3 innings pitched. Paige Vargas is 17-4 in 23 starts and has 106 strikeouts in 141 2/3 innings.

Georgia was in the College World Series a year ago, and Drake ended the season winning 28 of its last 29 games.

“It’s going to be tough, but why do it if it’s easy? We want it to be hard,” Denhartog said. “We had to earn it and we’re ready.”

Minnesota is hoping playing in front of its home crowd will be a factor for opponents this weekend. Jane Sage Cowles Stadium was a packed house in the last regular season series against Northwester, where Minnesota took two of the three games.

Tickets for this weekend’s regional were tough to come by within an hour of the Gophers learning of their seed. Just standing room only tickets remained as of Tuesday night. The stadium holds 1,000 seats, and every inch of the facility should be filled with Gophers’ colors.

“To host a regional, to play at home in front of an unbelievable crowd and give ourselves an opportunity to extend our season, we’re going to enjoy every part of it,” Trachsel said.

The Gophers face North Dakota State at about 8:30 p.m. Friday, after Georgia faces Drake in the earlier game.