The late Todd Oakes had a sign hanging in his Gophers baseball office that said, “Cherish every day you get to put the uniform on.”
Four days after their longtime pitching coach’s death from leukemia, the Gophers arrived at their clubhouse Monday, unsure they’d get another chance to don the maroon and gold.
Minnesota hadn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2010. Despite winning the Big Ten regular-season title, the Gophers (34-20) had slumped, losing five of six, including both games at the conference tournament.
“We were sweating it a little bit,” said Matt Fiedler, the Big Ten’s regular-season MVP. “I was really, really anxious. My heart was pounding.”
Halfway into the selection show, the Gophers replaced those jitters with shouts of joy after learning they’d landed safely in the 64-team field, as the No. 2 seed in the four-team College Station (Texas) Regional.
Minnesota will play No. 3 seed Wake Forest on Friday, followed by No. 1 Texas A&M vs. No. 4 Binghamton. It’s double-elimination, with the winner advancing to the Super Regionals.
Coach John Anderson acknowledged he was “relieved” to get into the NCAA tournament after enduring four recent one-run losses. The team received news that Oakes had been placed in home hospice right as the rough stretch began.
The 18-year Gophers pitching coach died Thursday at age 55 after fighting leukemia for four years. Players learned just moments before a 3-2 loss to Michigan that eliminated them from the Big Ten tournament.
“I was really hoping that wasn’t my last collegiate game,” said All-Big Ten second baseman Connor Schaefbauer.
Minnesota fell to No. 51 in the RPI. North Carolina, for comparison, was 19th and wound up as an NCAA snub.
But the Gophers had several things going for them. They were 18-11 on the road. They were 2-0 against Utah, which won the Pac-12 title. They combined to go 4-3 against Missouri State and Utah Valley, two other NCAA tournament teams.
“I think [the No. 2 seed] just shows that winning the Big Ten title still carries a lot of weight, as it should,” Fiedler said.
It wasn’t always that way. As Anderson noted, the Gophers won the 2002 Big Ten regular-season title and finished second in the conference tournament but wound up missing the NCAA field.
“It’s a different league today,” Anderson said, noting the Big Ten’s rise in the conference RPI from 13th in those days to seventh now. “I think the strength of our league and the perception of our league has changed significantly.”
Two other Big Ten teams made this year’s NCAA field — Nebraska and Ohio State, which won the conference tournament. Anderson said Michigan deserved a bid, too.
Minnesota has reached the NCAA tourney a Big Ten-best 31 times, including 18 under Anderson.
“The committee looks at everything, and I think they looked at what we went through,” Anderson said. “And probably part of our finish was related to what’s going on.”
The head coach’s own emotions are still raw, as Oakes’ family has asked him to speak at Tuesday’s funeral.
“It’s going to be tough,” Anderson said. “Every time I sit down, I just go over our last 18 years together, and all these things come popping back into my mind, trying to narrow it down, trying to do something he deserves under the tribute.”
After the funeral, the Gophers will continue honoring Oakes by hanging his No. 25 jersey in their dugout.
“These next two days will be pretty emotional for us as a team,” Schaefbauer said. “But he’ll be with us when we go to Texas A&M and for years to come.”