To be a Division I athlete in any sport has to be fulfilling.

But today, it's got to be especially nice to be a Gophers softball player. Fourth-year coach Jessica Allister has taken her squad to Baton Rouge, La., for a season-opening tournament. Allister needs two wins to reach 100 at the U of M.

Yes, they are out of the cold and snow for a while. Highs for the tournament are supposed to reach the low 60s. And everybody has to be excited. It's a team loaded with talent.

Three first-team, All-Big Ten players are the core of the team. In the circle most games will be senior Sara Moulton. She's in the top three in program history in wins with 85, strikeouts with 940 and innings with 807.2. Last season she was 32-12 with a 1.57 ERA and 308 strikeouts.

You have to have a pitcher in softball and the Gophers do.

You also have to be able to score a few runs. That's where the other two returning all-conference players come in. One is third baseman Kaitlyn Richardson, who is on the watch list for national player of the year. She hit .430 last season with 10 homers and 43 RBI. So she has some pop in her bat.

So does shortstop Tyler Walker who hit .379 with 12 homers and 32 RBI.

Those two batted leadoff and third in the Gophers' lineup. Their season came to an end when Minnesota lost 3-0 to Hawaii in the NCAA tournament on May 18 in Seattle.

The Gophers finished 36-19, 14-6 and tied for third in the Big Ten.

This team, on paper, should be better. Fourteen players return. Only two starters graduated, catcher Kari Dorle and designated player Alex Davis.

The infield is all back, the outfield is all back.

Here is the Gophers' schedule the first weekend in LSU's Tiger Classic:

Friday

Murray St., 3 p.m.

LSU, 5 p.m. ... Tigers are rated No. 17 in USA Today poll

Saturday

Southern Illinois, 9 a.m.

Central Arkansas, 11 a.m.

Sunday

Oklahoma State, 11 a.m.

After the trip to LSU, the Gophers make trips to Las Vegas, Greensboro, N.C., Tempe, Ariz., Stillwater, Okla., Conway, S.C., and Lincoln, Neb.

Then, weather permitting, they open at home March 28-30 versus Illinois.

They start so early because they have a 56-game regular-season to get in by May 4.

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