Ski-U-Mah Sendoff: Gopher softball heads to OKC

MaKenna Partain fielded the most difficult routine ground ball of her life, threw it to Hope Brander at first for the final out and what is usually only a dream for most Minnesota softball players became a reality.

The Gophers softball team (46-12) beat LSU Saturday 3-0 to complete a sweep and win its NCAA Super Regional. The dream was real life: Minnesota was heading to its first College World Series in program history, since the NCAA started its 64-team format.

It all became real as Gophers players, coaches and team staff boarded buses on Tuesday bound for Oklahoma City after holding a celebratory send-off at Athletes Village. No. 7-seeded Minnesota will face No. 2-seeded UCLA Thursday afternoon.

“No better way to dip your feet in, go in head first into the World Series than by slaying the dragon. Most storied program in the history of our sport,” Gophers coach Jamie Trachsel said. “Mission accepted and we’re going to enjoy the journey.”

Trachsel wasn’t kidding when speaking of the Bruins as one of the traditional powers in college softball. They’ve won 12 College World Series, they’ve been to the championship game 21 times, they’ve been to the College World Series 28 times and have 187 NCAA Tournament wins.

UCLA (51-6) is led by one of the most dominant pitchers in the game. Rachel Garcia is 24-1 on the season with a 1.01 earned run average and 253 strikeouts in 166 innings.

To put the Women’s College World Series into perspective, it’s Minnesota’s first appearance in program history. The other seven teams in the field have a combined 109 appearances.

It’s safe to say the Gophers will be underdogs in Oklahoma City. If you ask them, they actually prefer it that way.

“It’s where we want to be, we want to be the underdog. We want to be underestimated and we want to prove some people wrong, and that’s what we’re out to do,” Natalie Denhartog said. “We’re going to play loose, we’re going to play free and hopefully ruin some people’s days.”

Don’t confuse embracing the underdog role with just being happy to be in Oklahoma City.

The Gophers non-conference schedule was the toughest in the country. It was one of the primary reasons they earned a top eight seed and got the right to host a Super Regional.

The season started with 31 straight road games, and their schedule in total featured 13 teams that played in Super Regionals. They’re ready for whatever Oklahoma City and UCLA can bring them.

“We’re excited to extend our season and we feel proud to have earned this opportunity, but by no means was it to just get to the World Series,” Trachsel said. “We have every intention when we go out there to prepare for our opponent and go out there and make them really uncomfortable, try to ruin their day and try to win.”

If Minnesota is going to threaten for a national championship, they’re going to ride the arm of the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year. Amber Fiser is 31-7 on the season with a 1.17 earned run average in more than 250 innings pitched. In 38 starts, she has 339 strikeouts.

She got the call for the NCAA Regional wins over North Dakota State and Georgia, and allowed just three runs in two wins over LSU, including a complete game shutout in Saturday's clincher. Fiser is prepared for as many innings as Trachsel wants her to go this week, and hopefully early next week in what would be the championship series.

“It’s the end of the season, why not just go all out? My body may not feel the best at the time, but my team needs me and so I’m going to go out there and do the best that I can to give our team the best shot that we have,” Fiser said.

Minnesota’s side of the World Series bracket includes UCLA, Washington and Arizona. Washington knocked the Gophers out of the NCAA Tournament last year.

The bottom half of the bracket consists of Florida, Oklahoma State, Alabama and top overall seed Oklahoma. Alabama eliminated the Gophers two years ago when many felt Minnesota should’ve hosted a regional. The Gators also have former Gopher catcher Kendyl Lindaman, who started 58 games at catcher for Minnesota last season before transferring to Florida.

The Gophers head to Oklahoma City focused on themselves, and playing for those who sported Minnesota jerseys before them.

“This isn’t just for this team. A lot of people worked their butts off to get to where we are. It’s not just for us, it’s for the people who have played before us and who built this program as well,” senior and Plymouth native Maddie Houlihan said.

Enjoy the journey. Trust the process. Embrace the opportunity. It’s what got the Gophers this far, so they’re not about to change anything now. They hope that combination ruins some other team’s experiences, and may even have them competing for a national championship.

As they’ve said all season, “Why not us?”