Gophers softball going for 4th straight Big Ten title

If Jamie Trachsel has anything to say about it, there’s no way the University of Minnesota softball team will go into this weekend’s Big Ten Tournament unprepared.

The Gophers earned the No. 3 seed for the conference tournament after beating previously unbeaten Northwestern 2-1 in a three-game series at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium last weekend. Minnesota finished the Big Ten season 20-2, and had an 11-game win streak ended by the Wildcats on Friday on, of all things, a wild pitch.

The Gophers aren’t lacking any confidence heading into the Big Ten Tournament. They carry a top-10 RPI, the No. 1 strength of schedule and handed the Wildcats their only two losses of the Big Ten season. They await the winner of Thursday’s Purdue/Rutgers winner to see who advances to the semifinals.

So how is Trachsel keeping her team locked in? Nearly two dozen posters around the team facility that say, “Purdue or Rutgers.”

“We have 20 posters right now that we’re putting up that say Purdue or Rutgers. That’s who we play, we play Purdue or Rutgers. No one in our program right now is talking about anybody but those two teams,” Trachsel said.

It’s safe to say they’re not looking ahead to any potential match-ups. After all, they have to win Friday to give themselves that opportunity.

There’s plenty at stake for the Gophers, despite being comfortably in the NCAA Tournament regardless of what transpires at the Big Ten Tournament. With that RPI and strength of schedule, a run in the Big Ten Tournament would go a long way in keeping them home for an NCAA regional.

They had standing room only crowds for the final regular season home games against Northwestern. They’re also 10-1 at home this season, and would welcome any opportunity to keep their schedules and preparation as normal as possible.

“It would mean everything. There’s nothing better than playing in front of your fans, it’s as simple as that,” junior infielder Makenna Partain said. “There’s a certain edge to it, a certain boost it gives you as a team. There’s nothing better than that, and just getting to sleep in your own bed is pretty nice too. We would be pretty excited about that.”

Partain leads the Gophers, hitting .417 while starting every game this season with 32 RBI, five homers, 15 doubles and going 13-for-15 in stolen base attempts.

It also helps when you’re led by the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year. Amber Fiser has been virtually unhittable this season. She’s 25-7 with a 1.25 earned run average, good for 16th in the country. She has 281 strikeouts and just 54 walks in 202 1/3 innings.

She’s one of eight Gophers players to earn Big Ten honors. She joined Natalie Denharog, Partain and Hope Brandner on the All-Big Ten First Team. The key for Fiser has been not straying from having a solid mind.

“I think I’ve grown a lot mentally. I’m not letting a lot bother me this year, I’m just kind of focusing on whatever I can do for the team,” Fiser said.

In addition to trying to earn a home NCAA regional, the Gophers are also trying to make a little history. They’ve won three straight Big Ten Tournament titles, and would be the first team to win four straight since Michigan did it more than two decades ago.

They’re also trying to block out the disappointment of two years ago, when they finished 54-3 after winning the conference tournament, but it wasn’t enough to host a regional. Instead they went to Alabama, one of the top teams in the country, and lost 1-0 to the Crimson Tide twice.

Their sole focus this week is on controlling what’s in front of them. Right now, that’s playing either Purdue or Rutgers on Friday. The Gophers swept No. 11 seed Purdue by a combined 18-4, and did not face No. 6-seeded Rutgers in the regular season.

Make no mistake about it, the Gophers want a home NCAA regional after feeling they probably deserved it two years ago. They’re hoping that translates on the field this weekend, and they’ll find out their fate on Sunday.

“Sunday is going to come whether we think about it or not. So I think just focusing on doing our best in the Big Ten Tournament and being able to put ourselves in the possible (situation), that’s all we can do,” senior pitcher Sydney Smith said.

Trachsel said there’s something special about her Gophers’ squad this season. They’ve been very good about embracing the process and enjoying the journey. It’s one they hope continues with a regional in front of their home fans.

“It would be something we’d take a lot of pride in,” Trachsel said.