MaKenna Partain comes from Banks, an Oregon town located in the Tualatin Valley between Portland and the coast. She decided to leave that idyllic hamlet of 2,000 residents and travel to the snarled streets of the Twin Cities to play softball for the Gophers.
“At the end, my college choices came down to Oregon State or Minnesota,’’ Partain said. “I grew up following Pac-12 softball. We went to a few games at Lorenz Stadium [Oregon State]. I was a fan of that conference.’’
Yet, she made her visit to Minnesota, and coach Jessica Allister and her staff convinced Partain of the growing softball presence in the Midwest. Of course, a year later, Allister went back to Stanford, her alma mater, and left Partain as the second baseman for new coach Jamie Trachsel.
Partain will talk effusively of her fondness for Minnesota and her teammates. And any lingering thoughts on what it would’ve been like to play in the mighty Pac-12 (with its nine softball teams) are being taken care of this week in the College World Series.
The Gophers’ first visit to this NCAA championship landed them in a bracket with three storied Pac-12 programs: No. 2 seed UCLA, No. 3 seed Washington and No. 6 seed Arizona.
As the seventh seed, the Gophers drew UCLA, with Rachel Garcia, just named the National Player of the Year for the second time, in the pitching circle.
The pattern of this 7-2 victory Thursday for UCLA might have been wrapped in one sequence of fewer than 10 seconds in the third inning. The Bruins were leading 2-0 when Partain ripped her team’s first hit into left-center.
And then what happened?
“She stretched a double into a single,’’ Trachsel said.
Partain was motoring so hard rounding first — trying to get into scoring position with two outs — that her feet came out from under her, she fell, and had to return to first base.
That was the Gophers on Thursday: The harder they tried, the more they fell.
Right off the bat, pitcher Amber Fiser tried to throw an unhittable pitch — a high rise ball — to Bubba Nickles leading off the bottom of the first, and Bubba went up and hammered it over the left field fence.
Allie Arneson knocked in a run to cut UCLA’s lead to 3-2 in the sixth, and charged toward second to get the tying run in position with two outs. She was thrown out by a few inches.
And then there was Partain, ready to haul into second with her 17th double, and whoops.
“I can’t wait for the GIF that’s going to come about from that one,’’ Partain said. “I can’t change it. I fell. I got up and was dying laughing with my first base coach.
“Hey, I still got a hit, so it’s pretty cool. A double to a single. That doesn’t happen often for me.’’
This is correct. What Partain does for the Gophers is score runs. In a sport such as fastpitch softball, where runs are often a precious commodity, it’s a knack that is a tremendous asset.
Partain broke into the lineup for the Gophers as a freshman and scored 44 runs. As a sophomore in 2018, she upped that total to 53. And this season, with the leadoff spot as her own, she has scored a school record of 66.
The Gophers’ career record for runs scored is 197, set by Tyler Walker from 2012-15. Presuming good health, Partain is a cinch to break that, with a total of 163 as a junior.
So, yes, MaKenna fell, and she laughed, and she will be agitated about this 20 years from now at team reunions, but it was for the most noble of reasons:
Partain was trying to position herself to score a run.
“What’s the secret for scoring runs?’’ Partain said. “Simple. Get on base. Go from first to third. Get the extra base when possible. I take pride in giving my teammates the best chance to drive me home.’’
As a West Coast kid, Partain had as much awareness of the might of UCLA as any Gopher.
“I saw them play a few games as a kid,’’ she said. “UCLA is a huge dynasty. They are here every single year, it seems.
“But we had our chance. We were seeing the ball well from Rachel. We weren’t overpowered.
“We gave them too much. I made that error in the sixth, and they took advantage to break open the game. We don’t feel like we’re done.’’
Maybe not, but the Gophers get another Pac-12 power — Washington — on Saturday, and Washington has a first-team All-America pitcher, Gabbie Plain, that it didn’t use in the loss to Arizona.
“It’s a great conference,’’ Partain said. “Always has been. But we can play better than we did today.”