Maddie Houlihan and Amber Fiser were waiting to do TV interviews Thursday for a Channel 9 special on the Gophers softball team that would run that evening. The Gophers had hosted and finished winning a rain-delayed regional by defeating Georgia on Monday, and they were getting ready to meet LSU starting Friday in a best-of-three super regional.
Georgia and LSU were two of the 12 teams from the 13-team SEC that made it into the NCAA’s 64-team bracket. Houlihan and Fiser were both around in 2017, when the Gophers were 54-3 after the Big Ten tournament, and then discovered the clout that the SEC carries with the NCAA’s softball selection committee.
The Gophers were sent to a regional in Alabama, where they went 2-2 (and 0-2 vs. the Tide) and left with something of an empty feeling after what had been a season of startling excellence.
A reporter was talking casually with Houlihan and Fiser and offered a familiar refrain: “I still can’t figure out how your team was made to go on the road for a regional two years ago.”
Fiser, then the backup pitcher to Sara Groenewegen, now the junior star, offered a shrug. Houlihan said: “At least I wasn’t a senior then. That would’ve been worse.”
Houlihan is now a senior. She played and started her 232nd game for the Gophers on Friday. A major missing ingredient from 2017 — hosting and winning a regional — had been accomplished, and now there was a first chance ever to host a super regional.
And after that — well, don’t try to engage Houlihan, or coach Jamie Trachsel, or the Gophers in general, in a conversation about the possibility of joining the eight-team field for next week’s College World Series in Oklahoma City ... not yet.
Yet, the determination of Houlihan to end her career there, in an event that ESPN has turned into a popular showcase for the might of women’s athletics, came through right on time Friday afternoon (and evening).
The Gophers gave away the game’s first run in the top of the third, when Akiya Thymes struck out on a wild pitch, was motoring to first and catcher Emma Burns made an ill-advised throw to first.
Holding the ball would have left runners on first and third with two outs, and allowed Fiser a chance to keep the game scoreless. Instead, Burns’ late throw went past first and LSU led 1-0.
“Emma knows not to throw that ball,” Trachsel said. “It was effort. She was trying to make something out of it.”
On occasion, the first run in fast-pitch softball can be the equivalent of the first goal in soccer — a mountain to climb.
Not this time. The lefthanded Houlihan was leading off the bottom of the third against Shelbi Sunseri. The first pitch was hittable, and Houlihan bombed it well over the fence in left-center.
She was asked a baseball question: Were you sitting on a certain pitch?
“If there was a strike to hit, I was going to take my hack,” Houlihan said.
How many times as a Gopher — seven home runs this season, 28 for her career — has Houlihan gone out of the home stadium in that direction?
“I don’t have any idea,” she said. “I like to go ‘oppo’ if my swing is right.”
Amber Serrett put LSU back in front 2-1 with a home run leading in the fourth. Then, with two outs, center fielder Ali Lindner didn’t get a quick read on Amanda Sanchez’s bloop single and that made it 3-1.
Action was required — and taken.
The Gophers’ Carlie Brandt walked, and was forced out on a MaKenna Partain’s bouncer. Then, Houlihan ripped a double to right-center. It scored a run and lit up her teammates. The double was followed by two walks and two more hits, capped by Allie Arneson’s tiebreaking, two-run single.
Fielding also returned as a Gophers’ strength. Hope Brandner made an outstanding, inning-ending play at first. Third baseman Katelyn Kemmetmueller made a bullet throw to get a big out at first.
Through it all, Fiser outlasted an LSU team that stretched her to a career-high 147 pitches, with eight hits, two walks, a hit-by-pitch and consistent foul balls.
So now the Gophers have the all-important Game 1 victory in a super regional; all-important unless you’re LSU, a team that came back from one-down to win super regionals at James Madison in 2016 and Florida State in 2017, and then lost two in a row after winning the opener at Florida State in 2018.
Those are fine examples that the second victory in a super regional is the toughest one. And that’s why Trachsel’s Gophers won’t be talking about Oklahoma City until they get it.