Gophers softball team gears up for NCAA Tournament

The University of Minnesota softball team has set a standard over the last decade: Get to the NCAA Tournament behind an ace and a lineup that can score runs, and see what happens.

The Gophers (37-17) are headed to their 10th straight postseason appearance, getting the No. 4 seed in the Seattle Regional, and will be part of a four-team pod including host Washington, McNeese State and Northern Colorado. Minnesota will open tournament play Friday afternoon against McNeese.

The winner of the pod will advance and face the winner of the Baton Rouge Regional, hosted by LSU, in a best-of-three Super Regional for a trip to the College World Series.

"It’s awesome. You always want to make it to the NCAA Tournament. We’ve done it every year that I’ve been here. We’ve played well this season so we kind of deserve to be there," Gophers’ pitcher Autumn Pease said.

Piper Ritter is in her third year as head coach of the program, and the standard has not changed. The Gophers finished third in the Big Ten with a 17-6 record, and they’re looking to make their second College World Series in program history. The first was in 2019.

"I tell them every day that never ever are you going to work this hard with this many people towards one common goal. When you get everyone on that field and they know what their job is and they’re working that hard for the team, postseason happens," Ritter said. "I don’t know if it’s an expectation or standard, but it’s something that we want to work for."

They’re led on the mound by Pease, a fifth year senior and the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year. She finished the regular season 26-7 with a 1.45 earned run average. She has 256 strikeouts in 203 innings, and came back for a final year after dealing with injuries.

She was 11-14 last season with 4.17 ERA. She’s now the latest ace in a group that’s included Sara Moulton, Sara Groenwegen and Amber Fiser.

"I didn’t want to end on a bad season. I had the opportunity to come back, I still had to finish my degree. I was going to come back to school anyways. Just really being able to play with the girls and have such great support meant a lot to me," Pease said. "That’s what drove me back."

They’re led offensively by her battery mate, catcher Taylor Krapf. The Duke transfer leads the Gophers with a .354 average, .707 slugging percentage, 14 homers and 47 RBI.

"Taylor has been amazing. What she’s been doing behind the plate has been game-changing," Pease said.

They’re also leaning on Natalie Denhartog, a graduate student who was a wide-eyed freshman on the 2019 squad that went to the program’s lone College World Series. The former Hopkins standout is hitting .314 with 12 homers and 35 RBI, and a defensive mainstay in the outfield this season.

This is her final run at a postseason with her hometown school. She said her experience, and staying in the moment, has been a key this season.

"Having the experience of being in the postseason, and even as a program having the expectation of making postseason makes a big difference. Then it’s not too many bells and whistles or too excited, or making the moment too big or bigger than it is," DenHartog said. "Just focusing on what we do and playing our game. I try to deliver whatever wisdom I can, but this group of girls doesn’t need a whole lot of guidance."

She added, "It is fun to sit in the locker room and talk about it, say ‘Hey this is fun. Making postseason is fun, making postseason is something special that this program gets to do.’ Just really enjoy it and compete and put it all on the line because it’s such a fleeting opportunity, and it’s one we really want to take advantage of."