Rebuilt Gophers softball has 'nothing to lose' facing No. 1 Oregon
MAY 22, 2014 6:00p ET
MINNEAPOLIS -- When Minnesota softball coach Jessica Allister came knocking on Kaitlyn Richardson's door in Phoenix three years ago, the latter didn't even know the school offered her sport of choice.
"I didn't. I didn't know how they did it," said Richardson, the Gophers' junior utility player. "We're good weather all-around and we're playing every month of the year (in Arizona)."
Senior pitcher Sara Moulton wasn't as naive. Growing up in Eagan, Minn., she was aware of Minnesota's softball endeavors -- and the program's mediocrity since the turn of the century.
Travel youth play with the Minnesota Sting also exposed her to the advantages warmer states possess in developing players.
"We'd play California teams," Moulton said, "and we were really in awe about how talented they were. We were pretty far behind."
When it comes to Gopher softball, that's no longer the case.
Fresh off its first Big Ten championship since 1999 and a gutsy NCAA tournament regional performance last weekend, the Gophers boarded a plane bound for Oregon on Thursday morning. A combination of home-grown talent, national recruiting efforts and a program-wide desire to construct a winner have them facing the top-ranked Ducks in Minnesota's inaugural super regional, which begins Saturday at 9 p.m. CT.
The young ladies that perform on the diamond expected this. The woman orchestrating it all from the dugout is more cautious.
"I don't think you can ever expect that," said Allister, the fourth-year coach. "I'm not surprised, but at the same time, there's so many things that's out of your control, you don't know what's going to happen."
Formerly an assistant at none other than Oregon, Allister took over in 2010 a club that hadn't reached the NCAAs since 2003. During that span, the Lisa Bernstein and Julie Standerling-led Gophers finished higher than fifth in the Big Ten once (fourth in 2008).
Meanwhile, the rest of the conference had surpassed them. Michigan won a national championship in 2005. Northwestern reached the Women's College World Series a year later.
Allister knew she had a rebuilding project on her hands. And rather than try to skirt around it with recruits, she simply asked for their assistance on it.
"The beauty of it is she wanted to take something, take Minnesota's program -- which wasn't at its greatest -- and make it into something great," said junior infielder Tyler Walker, a San Jose, Calif., native who leads the NCAA in triples with eight. "I wanted to be a part of that."
Said Richardson, whose .758 slugging percentage is the best in school history: "(Allister) told me, 'Come help me build this program' pretty much, and that's what we wanted to do.
"It was a different choice than some of my friends might have chosen. We could've gone to the big-name schools and stuff like that, but . . . after talking to coach Allister that first time, she really grabbed my attention, and I just had trust in her and trust that she was going to do this. She told me with conviction that she was going to turn this program around and we were going to be Big Ten champs and we were going to go deep into the postseason, and that's what we're doing right now."
The process wasn't rapid.
Each of Allister's first two years on the job, Minnesota won 31 games and finished in the bottom half of the conference. Last year, the Gophers broke through with a 36-19 mark, went 14-6 in league play for third place and reached the NCAA tourney via an at-large bid.
After Wisconsin bested them in the Big Ten tourney championship game, they were eliminated from regionals a week later.
But, as Walker put it, a flame had been ignited.
"I think we had to go through some struggles in the past couple of years to be able to get here," she said. "I think that we kind of needed the heartbreak of not making the (Big Ten) tournament my freshman year, and I think that kind of lit a fire under us for last year. Then cutting it kind of short in regionals last year lit a fire under us for not making that happen again this year."
Walker is one of just three Gophers that hail from warm-weather states, the traditional hotbeds of collegiate softball and baseball talent where the sport is available on a 365-day basis. Twelve of the remaining 16 players on the roster are from the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
That combination of talent has put together the best season in school history this spring.
Outscoring its opponents 315-116, Minnesota enters the weekend with its highest-ever winning percentage at .815. Moulton is the program's all-time leader in wins (112), complete games (108), shutouts (47), innings pitched (1,008) and strikeouts (1,183), and she and freshman Sara Groenewegen have combined to post the 12th-best ERA in NCAA Division I at 1.85.
The Gophers aren't as hot-hitting a team as Oregon, ranked No. 1 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball and USA Today/NFCA Coaches polls, but do have six athletes batting .260 or better, led by Richardson at .423. Freshman Sam Macken -- a Rochester, Minn., native -- is hitting .341 during her last 14 games and supplied a walk-off single in Minnesota's Big Ten title-game victory over Michigan and provided the winning margin with a three-run home run Sunday against Auburn to help clinch the Minneapolis regional.
Now a best-of-three series on the Ducks' home diamond is all that stands between the Gophers and their first-ever trip to Oklahoma City for the Women's CWS.
But there's no pressure involved in that, Macken said. Just a chance for more history.
"We've got nothing to lose," she said. "It's all opportunity from here."
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