They came from out West, from places far warmer than here — Kaitlyn Richardson from Phoenix, Tyler Walker from San Jose. They arrived at the same time and with one fundamental goal: to breathe new life into the Gophers softball program.

It is safe to say Richardson and Walker, now sophomores, have done that as the two biggest offensive stars on a team that is heading to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003. They combined with ace pitcher Sara Moulton to give Minnesota three first-team all-Big Ten players for the first time since 1988.

“We all came to build this program,” Richardson said. “I didn’t want the weather to be a factor in my decision. If it was hot, warm, whatever, I just wanted to go because I liked the school and program. What really got me was the coaches. … I knew they were going to do something special with this program.”

Walker had similar thoughts about head coach Jessica Allister and her assistants, adding: “What brought me here is what’s happening now. You can see Minnesota hasn’t accomplished these things in years, and I wanted to be a part of building a program.”

Going into a first-round matchup against Hawaii on Friday in Seattle, the duo is 1-2 on the team in several offensive categories. Richardson, who plays third base and bats third, has the batting average (.440-.393), RBI (41-31) and slugging percentage (.730-.711) edge, while Walker — playing shortstop and leading off — leads in runs scored (51-34), hits (68-62) and home runs (12-10).

“We definitely feed off each other,” Walker said. “It’s a testament to our friendship off the field. We spend a lot of time together. On the field, we push each other, and friendly competition fuels us.”

That competition will reach another level in the NCAA tournament. Just hours after losing to Wisconsin on Sunday in the Big Ten title game, the Gophers learned they had earned an at-large berth. A day that started low ended with an upswing, just like the overall trajectory of the program.

“Sunday was a day of a lot of emotion,” Walker said. “We went from a heartbreak to pure excitement. I think the championship game of the Big Ten tournament was fuel for our fire. We learned a lot from it.”

Michael Rand