MINNEAPOLIS — Hope Brandner knew what she wanted in her new school when looking to transfer last offseason: a passionate coach who formed real relationships with players. It’s why the power-hitting corner infielder ended up at Minnesota.
What she wanted was Jamie Trachsel.
“No matter what she does, she’s passionate, and she just wants us to get better and she knows how good we can be,” Brandner said. “She sees the potential in us and she just comes out every day and shows us that she cares.”
In the postseason of Trachsel’s second year in Dinkytown, her players feel they’re learning who their coach really is.
“This year she was way more herself, and I think that’s how this team has changed so much is that we accept her for who she is,” junior pitcher Amber Fiser said. “We love her as a coach and as a person off the field, as well.
“I think that’s just really helped us with the team chemistry this year, and I think we’re closer to like family.”
The Gophers (41-12) begin NCAA regional play against North Dakota State (42-14) Friday at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium. First pitch is set for 8:30 p.m.
Trachsel knows softball.
Serving on the North Dakota State coaching staff from 2002-16, the last six years as a co-head coach, she helped the Bison successfully transition to the Division-I level and become a nearly annual NCAA participant — even reaching Super Regionals in 2009.
In 2016, she left North Dakota State to take over a rebuild at Iowa State. The Duluth native spent just one year with the Cyclones before returning to her home state to coach the Gophers. Minnesota was far from a rebuild, but that in itself provided plenty of challenges.
“I think (Trachsel) was put in a super tough position,” outfielder Maddie Houlihan said.
The Gophers were fresh off a 56-win season in 2017 that was marred by a shocking snub from the NCAA selection committee that kept Minnesota from hosting a regional. The Gophers were knocked out of the Tuscaloosa, Ala., regional and, shortly thereafter, coach Jessica Allister left to take the same position at Stanford, her alma mater.
Players were accustomed to succeeding at a high level while doing things a certain way. Trachsel and her new players had to adjust to each other’s methods.
“I suppose maybe a few people were iffy last year,” second baseman MaKenna Partain said.
Trachsel seemed to know that might be the case. Her approach was to respect the past and move forward with full acknowledgment that change is difficult. “Especially,” she said, “when it’s so unexpected.”
She made a point not to rush anything. There was no need for a drastic overhaul. Trachsel made a point of understanding what was successful while bridging the gap to what she wanted to do with the program.
She showed patience and asked her players to do the same.
“But just always be open to ideas and that there are different ways to be successful,” Trachsel said. “It’s like any relationship — it takes time to earn trust and respect and proof that something can work and can be successful, even though it’s different. Different isn’t good or bad, it’s just different. But that just takes time.”
There certainly were differences, such as a change in hitting instruction and more practice time spent on defense.
“Even though they were trying, when it wasn’t successful, then you’re in such a gray area that you’re almost in a lose-lose situation,” Trachsel said. “But it goes back to the power of being open and how invested and how much you’re able to let go and dive into something new, and how powerful that … choice really is.”
Some of Trachsel’s new ideas were similar to what Minnesota had done under Allister, but even those required adjustments. Would they call it what her players were used to calling it? Would they switch to Trachsel’s terminology?
It was a give and take throughout the first season. There were a lot of compromises struck during the “adjustment year.” Trachsel isn’t sure if she properly blended the old with the new. How quick should a transition like that be?
“I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong answer for it,” Trachsel said.
The resulrs certainly were positive. The Gophers won 41 games and a third straight Big Ten tournament championship. Junior infielder Makenna Partain, leading the Gophers with a .407 batting average and 63 runs scored, doesn’t think the transition would have been nearly as smooth with a different approach.
“I feel like now that we have had those compromises and we have talked about certain things, she understands where we’re coming from — and we understand where she’s coming from,” Partain said. “And we’ve collaborated to make this amazing program run better.”
Return of the snarl
Trachsel thinks the transition trickled into Year 2. There was major turnover in the coaching staff in the offseason, meaning it was largely just Trachsel and pitching coach Piper Ritter out on the recruiting trail.
Trachsel thinks the fall is when everyone reached a new comfort level, and that allowed her to refocus on other areas of the job: Passion, relationships, communication — the things that brought Brandner to Minnesota and define Trachsel as a coach.
She figures she lost some of that while adjusting to the new job.
“What I have to figure out is how to be the coach I’ve always been while still sitting in this chair,” Trachsel said recently from her office. “That’s probably been one of my biggest challenges is with all of the administrative stuff and the managing stuff. … Tt’s to not lose who you are.”
Yes, Trachsel is responsible for the decisions on game day, so she has to maintain a level head in the biggest of moments. But she also has to be her, which includes coaching “with the passion, and sometimes a little snarl.”
“That’s been a big challenge for me, and something I look forward to figuring out once I get more comfortable, more familiar with all of this stuff,” Trachsel said. “To still be the coach that landed me some of these positions in the first place.”
Trachsel’s players have seen more of that this season.
“It’s been amazing to watch her become more comfortable and true to herself and how she really coaches,” Partain said. “She’s just more confident. She’s willing to say what she wants and not feel like she’s stepping on anybody’s toes. And it’s just her, you can tell.
“She’s got a different presence about her. She’s the boss, and she is. We all believe it, and we’re all 100 percent behind her.”
Build upon success
When U athletics director Mark Coyle was looking for Gophers softball’s next coach, he wanted to find someone “who could walk in and who’d embrace not the challenge, but the opportunity.”
“When we met with Jamie, that’s the feeling that we had from her, is that she would embrace this opportunity to walk into this program that had had some success and do everything she could to continue to build upon that success,” he said.
The Gophers’ No. 7 national seed entering the NCAA tournament is the highest in program history. Minnesota is hosting a regional for just the second time under the current format.
Trachsel admitted the ultimate dream is to play in the Women’s College World Series, and she has her Gophers in good position to make a run at it.
The coach’s lessons and philosophies have set into her team. Houlihan noted how much she’s improved defensively.
“Practices might have looked different than what we had in years past, but we get better every day,” Houlihan said. “We’re going to find a way to get better, and that mentality never changes, no matter how far we get into the season.”
Partain admits she heard whispers from people who didn’t think the Gophers would survive Allister’s departure. “Not anymore,” she said with a laugh.
Trachsel has complimented the strength of her coaching staff, with each person bringing different philosophies and ideas to the table. She raves about her players and how they serve as the face of Minnesota softball.
Still, Trachsel is the boss and played the most important role in navigating the program through a difficult transition.
Allister already has Stanford back in the NCAA tournament and played a big role in lifting the Gophers into the national realm, but players have gravitated to Trachsel in a short period of time.
Houlihan admires her coach’s love and passion for both the sport and her home state. Fiser said Trachsel cares about each of her players as people, noting that if someone wants to put in extra time at the field, Trachsel will be there “in a heartbeat.”
“She wants us to succeed,” Fiser said. “She puts so much extra work into helping us get better.”
It’s easy for players to buy into a coach like that.
“She’s done an amazing job of just sticking true to who she is and believing and trusting in what she knows, and we’ve bought in,” Houlihan said. “Look at what we’ve been able to do in just two years with her. I’m so lucky that I’ve been able to have her as my coach the last two years of my career (and) I think this program is going to be a big name in the softball world for a long time. It’s really exciting.
“I’m really proud of who I’ve had as a coach.”