MINNEAPOLIS -- College softball programs across the country experienced turbulence last offseason because an adjusted NCAA transfer rule that allowed players to play at another school without sitting out an entire year.
Suddenly, it was open season on star players, and the Gophers looked like particularly easy prey.
Minnesota was just a season removed from one of the biggest snubs in NCAA history when the top-ranked Gophers were passed over to host an NCAA regional as a top 16 seed, and a year removed from their head coach leaving for Stanford. Few players on the roster were actually recruited by new coach Jamie Trachsel, a Duluth native.
Gophers players who already had established themselves as top-end talent had a chance to walk into the welcoming arms of a perennial power, where they could immediately contribute to a surefire national title contender.
That’s what slugging All-American catcher Kendyl Lindaman did. She left for Florida after her sophomore season. The sharks were circling. What team wouldn’t want to add leading hitter MaKenna Partain, or ace starter Amber Fiser?
But Lindaman was the outlier. The rest of the team stayed and made history, and might even meet their former teammate this week at the College World Series in Oklahoma City.
The seventh-seeded Gophers meet No. 2 seed UCLA at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, May 30. (ESPN)
“It was really cool to watch people stick true to our program,” Partain said. “The people that wanted to be here stayed here, and that was the most important part, and everybody embraced that role.
“I think that was something that really stuck with me, the fact that I’m playing with people that want to be here, want to represent Minnesota softball. And it’s just an amazing thing to be a part of.”
Worth fighting for
Fiser never seriously considered leaving Minnesota. She loved the school, and the program, too much to entertain the idea of leaving it.
Sure, there were bumps in the year prior as the team transitioned to a new coach. But the Gophers’ ace knew Trachsel was “a great person,” someone for whom she wanted to play.
“I believed that this team was worth fighting for,” Fiser said.
When asked why, Fiser called the Gophers a “family,” a word gets thrown out a lot in sports, but Fiser said you don’t find too many like the team the U brought to its first College World Series. She described a previous experience as one where “we’ve been completely torn apart by each other.”
These Gophers have managed to make one another stronger.
“It’s so hard to leave that,” Fiser said.
‘It's never about you’
Not discussed as often as what the Gophers lost in Lindaman is what they gained in Hope Brandner. The Oregon State transfer has 19 home runs this season, one off Lindaman’s single-season program record.
Moments after Brandner hit a walk-off homer against Georgia in the eighth inning of a second-round NCAA regional game, the slugger spoke at length about what she called the privilege of playing for the Gophers.
“I talk to the team all the time about how proud I am to be here,” she said. “It’s just an amazing feeling to be able to wear this uniform.”
Partain said Brandner often discusses how the Gophers “just do it differently here.” Sydney Smith, the Gophers’ No. 2 pitcher and a transfer from LSU, said “everyone is kind of held at a higher standard. … And everyone upholds that.”
“It’s never about you,” senior outfielder Maddie Houlihan said. “You’re always playing for something bigger than yourself, and you’re, I think, not just going to come out of this program as a better softball player, but a better person.
“I’ve learned so much on the field, but also so much off the field on what it takes to work hard, and what it takes to work hard for the people to the right and to the left of you.”
‘Look at who is here’
“Those who stay will be champions.”
The famous quote from legendary Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler rang true for these Gophers, but it was an unlikely prophecy for this program to fulfill.
It wasn’t as though Minnesota had knocked on the door of a World Series a year ago. With the transfer of its top power hitter, and the season-ending injury to star center fielder Ellee Jensen early in the season, what chance did the Gophers have?
Trachsel heard a lot of that. The coach fielded countless questions about replacing Lindaman.
“Most of the attention and the questions were directed at what wasn’t here anymore,” Trachsel said. “You take that personally and say, ‘Yeah, but look who is here.’ ”
That was part of the inspiration for one of Trachsel’s mantras season: “Why not us?”
The coach’s confidence in her players had to, at least partly, stem from what she learned about them the previous offseason. Their loyalty spoke volumes. She saw her players get protective of their program and fight for its success. It showed, Trachsel said, “that they’re still invested in it, that this is where they wanted to be.”
“They wanted to be the people that made a name for this program and brought this program to new heights and be a part of history, and they were,” she added. “They wanted to be a reason that this was a place that people could chase and accomplish their dreams, and we did that.”
‘You have to earn it’
The Gophers can’t work outside in the winter. They spend the first two months of the season on the road, playing some of the top teams in the country, only to usually still get snubbed by the Selection Committee at season’s end.
You don’t join the Minnesota softball program for easy.
“The (deck) is always stacked against us a little bit,” said Sydney Dwyer, a 2018 Gophers softball alum.
Yet players still come.
Sara Moulton, a 2014 alum, said Gophers recruits come to Minnesota to be a part of something, to help grow and transform this program into the power it’s rapidly becoming, knowing full well they won’t be given anything they don’t deserve.
“You have to earn it every single day,” Partain said. “People don’t realize what we go through every single season.”
It’s what makes moments such as this weekend all the more satisfying.
“For all the girls here, we loved Minnesota, we love the program, we love the coaches, so we just found the right group of people that wanted to be here,” Houlihan said. “And we were willing to do whatever it took to get to this spot.”
The other seven teams in this weekend’s world series have made a combined 109 appearances in the event. This is Minnesota’s first. It was earned the hard way.
“Not a lot of people expected us to be here, so it’s amazing,” Partain said. “Going somewhere where they are a top program, they make it every year, every other year, whatever, it’s awesome they get to go there.
“But there’s something special about being the first team ever to do it here. I’m very, very proud of everything we’ve done so far. So, yeah, it’s pretty special.”