OKLAHOMA CITY – The NCAA sponsored its first women's volleyball tournament in 1981 and it belonged to the West Coast for nearly two decades. Nebraska, then in the Big 12, was the first non-West winner in 1995. Penn State was the first Big Ten winner in 1999.
The two decades that followed have led to the Big Ten becoming the deepest volleyball conference in the country. Numerous schools have made the right commitment and hired the right coaches, with Minnesota near the top of that list.
The same dominance long existed for Pac-12 and other western schools in fast-pitch softball. Twenty-six of the first 30 softball World Series winners from 1982 to 2011 were from the West.
One of the four teams to break through that dominance was the Big Ten's Michigan in 2005. The Wolverines also reached the final series in 2015, losing in three games to Florida.
The past seven years, the Pac-12 has lost its championship hold, with three titles going to the SEC (Florida 2, Alabama), three to Oklahoma and one to Florida State in 2018.
The Gophers arrived here on Tuesday hoping to discover if the Pac-12's long-held mastery in softball was ready to be challenged by a Big Ten team, as in volleyball. The answer turned out to be an emphatic, "Not so you would notice it."
Coach Jamie Trachsel's team showed its feistiness on two occasions, rallying for two runs in the sixth on Thursday to cut a UCLA lead to 3-2, and in the seventh inning on Saturday, in cutting a Washington lead to 5-3 and putting the tying runs in scoring position.
The other dozen innings played at Hall of Fame Stadium belonged to the Bruins and the Huskies. Those teams had better pitching, deeper lineups when it came to danger and, for these two games, considerably better fielding.
Amber Fiser, the Gophers' first-team All-America pitcher, was only at her best for short spurts. The junior needed all the help she could get; instead, there was minimal hitting and uncharacteristically poor fielding.
"We call our infield the Secret Service," Trachsel said. "Their job is to serve, protect and defend the president. And the pitcher is the president."
Trachsel shook her head and offered a version of, "That didn't happen."
Second baseman MaKenna Partain had an error vs. UCLA that opened a four-run floodgate in the sixth inning. Fiser didn't help her out, either, surrendering a three-run home run to Aaliyah Jordan that sealed that first loss.
Fiser gave up a first-inning home run — to Washington's Morganne Flores — for the second straight game. Then, shortstop Allie Arneson triple-dribbled a ground ball for an error, and Fiser wild-pitched home a second run.
Trachsel gave Fiser the hook in a messy fourth inning. It was her shortest outing — 3⅔ innings — in 40 starts. Sydney Smith came in to get the third out and keep the score at 3-1.
Smith had a scoreless fifth and was getting ready to start the sixth when a lightning threat stopped the game, for 3 hours and 9 minutes. When Smith returned to the circle at 4 p.m., another error, by third baseman Katelyn Kemmetmueller, led to two unearned runs.
The Gophers allowed seven unearned runs (among 12) in the two losses that sent them back to the Twin Cities with an 0-2 record in their first NCAA softball World Series.
That said, Fiser allowed 10 baserunners while getting 11 outs on Saturday, and 14 baserunners while getting 17 outs Thursday. That wasn't the Fiser who carried the Gophers to this eight-team World Series by pitching every inning in stout fashion for five tournament victories.
Then again, these were two hellacious ballclubs: UCLA and Washington.
"Those lineups … you can't get away with anything," Trachsel said. "Every time we tried that, they made us pay."