Eighteen times, John Anderson has taken his Gophers baseball team to the NCAA tournament. And 18 times, it hasn’t advanced out of regional play.
Beginning Friday, the Gophers will try to make Anderson’s 19th NCAA appearance a breakthrough — with Minnesota playing host to a four-team regional at Siebert Field. The winner advances to a best-of-three super regional next week for a berth in the College World Series in Omaha.
“It’s going to be nice to play at home in front of our fans and in the new facility. It’s going to be a great celebration and hopefully the next step in our program,” said Anderson, whose top-seeded Gophers (41-13) play No. 4 seed Canisius (35-20) Friday night. No. 2 seed UCLA meets No. 3 Gonzaga in Friday afternoon’s opener.
In his 37th year as coach, Anderson might have his best shot at advancing. The Gophers won the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles, posting an 18-4 conference mark and winning all four tourney games last weekend. They are the NCAA’s No. 14 overall seed, have not lost a series this season and are on a 25-3 run.
“Never,” Anderson said when asked if he’s had a team enter NCAA play with such momentum. “Not the winning streak we’ve put together. That’s a reflection that we’ve been consistent in all three phases — defense, offense and pitching.”
To advance to the super regional — let alone the College World Series — the Gophers must buck a trend. Since 1985, only one Big Ten team has advanced to Omaha: Indiana in 2013. And since the Hoosiers’ run, the only Big Ten team to make a super regional was Illinois in 2015.
Indiana’s coach in 2013, Tracy Smith, credited his players for the success — Cubs slugger Kyle Schwarber and Twins farmhand Aaron Slegers were stars on that Hoosiers team — but also said being a regional host was key.
“For what John’s done up there and his consistency, there’s a definite plus in them being able to host,” said Smith, who became the coach at Arizona State in 2015. “… You’ve got to be good, but you’ve got to be lucky, too. He’s set up pretty well to have a good run.”
Like the Gophers this year, Smith’s 2013 Indiana team won the Big Ten regular-season and tourney titles. Then, the Hoosiers went 3-0 to win the Bloomington regional before sweeping Florida State in Tallahassee in a super regional. In the College World Series, Indiana went 1-2 with a pair of one-run losses.
Terrin Vavra, the Gophers’ first-team All-America shortstop, doesn’t see why his team can’t break through in the program’s first home regional since 2000.
“Some of those pressures are there, but I don’t think we feel a crazy amount,” Vavra said. “Because sometime that [title drought] is going to have to change, and why not us?”
Pieces are in place
The Gophers enter the regional brimming with talent and confidence. Vavra, a junior who leads the team with a .385 batting average, 10 home runs and 55 RBI, was one of three players to receive All-America honors Thursday. Joining him are freshman righthander Patrick Fredrickson (second team) and freshman closer Max Meyer (third team).
Fredrickson (9-0, 1.78 ERA) is a 6-6, 210-pounder who has impressed with his poise.
“We feel ready to go,” the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year and Freshman of the Year said, “and we fully expect to win this thing.”
Fredrickson will pitch second in the rotation, with junior righthander Reggie Meyer starting against Canisius.
“All the hard work we put in the offseason to get us here has proven our point,” Meyer said. “We’re not done yet.”
Supplementing the Gophers’ solid pitching is slick fielding. Minnesota doesn’t give up many extra outs.
“They’ve made play after play after play on defense and some plays a lot of teams don’t make,” Anderson said. “I’ve had more coaches come up to me after a series or game, saying, ‘I can’t believe the plays your kids made out there’ to take away runs, to take away hits, to save a big inning from happening.”
Add it together, and Anderson clearly sees the opportunity this weekend provides. He was a student coach on the Gophers’ last CWS team in 1977, and a regional title would take him one step closer to Omaha.
“When everything lines up perfectly — when you have the right talent, stay healthy for the most part and get some bounces to go your way — this can happen,” he said. “The stars lined up pretty well this year. Let’s hope they can stay in alignment.”