There wasn’t much for Jessica Allister to sell when she took over the Gophers softball program four years ago. The team had fallen into a lull since the early 2000s and it was time to rebuild. The creative coach looked beyond her sport to begin the process.
“When you look at the department as a whole, we [talked to recruits] about how successful some of the women’s programs have been [at Minnesota]. That shows that there is the infrastructure in place and university support behind it to have a great program,” Allister said. “If these teams can be successful, we can be successful, too.”
It didn’t take long for the coach and her players to see the truth behind this selling point. The Gophers won the Big Ten tournament championship last week, which helped them earn the right to host an NCAA tournament regional this weekend at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium.
The Gophers play Wisconsin-Green Bay at 6:30 p.m. Friday in their first game. Auburn and North Dakota State open the regional at 4 p.m.
It’s the second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance for the Gophers, who have put together four consecutive 30-plus win seasons. This year’s 41-9 record earned them the tournament’s overall No. 16 seed. They are one of only seven teams in the 64-team field with fewer than 10 losses.
When Allister took over the program in 2010, the Gophers were coming off back-to-back losing seasons during which it had won only eight Big Ten games.
The transformation has been swift but not easy, Allister said. As freshmen, the present seniors, including standout pitcher Sara Moulton, pushed a culture of finding ways to get better. The now juniors, which included top national recruits Tyler Walker and Kaitlyn Richardson, weren’t scared of anything when they arrived on campus.
Those new mind-sets helped produce a new standout in women’s athletics at Minnesota.
Allister and her coaches were determined to turn around the program “and I fell in love with the idea,” said Richardson, who leads the team with a .433 batting average, 18 doubles and 47 RBI. “It’s not just another program out there. We created a program that is going to be remembered at Minnesota and, hopefully, be long-lived and known as a good softball program.”
Their success has created buzz around the campus and athletics department. The team’s picture was hung in the university’s Hall of Champions this past week. Walker takes pride in seeing such recognition but said the team isn’t done yet.
The players adopted a motto of pushing the rock up the hill together, with destinations of the super-regionals and Women’s College World Series.
“It’s an opportunity to show we belong and we deserve to be hosting a regional, and that we’re going to win our regional and go from there,” said Walker, who’s hitting .386 with 10 home runs, 14 stolen bases and 46 RBI. “People still might think we’re the underdogs, and we’re going to be able to prove people wrong.”
The last time the program was host of a regional was in 2002. The Gophers never have won more than two NCAA tournament games in a postseason. Moulton said there’s no pressure to win this weekend despite the Gophers being the tournament host.
The righthander from Eagan said she was star-struck playing in her first NCAA tournament last year. This time she knows what to expect and is thankful to get another opportunity in her home state. Moulton has a 1.59 ERA and 222 strikeouts. Sara Groenewegen, the Big Ten pitcher and freshman of the year, has a 2.25 ERA and 172 strikeouts.
“We feel a lot of pride. This is our home,” Moulton said. “Looking back on our last four years and where we started and where we are now, it’s incredible. I wasn’t sure what I was walking into my freshman year. … I didn’t know [the transformation] would happen this quickly.”