Maddie Houlihan was in her first year at Benilde-St. Margaret’s as a seventh-grader. There were tryouts for the middle school softball team. Coach Adrian Wagner watched Houlihan for an hour and put her with the “C’’ team group, mostly ninth-graders.
By the next day, Wagner had moved Houlihan to the varsity. She was in and out of the lineup as a seventh-grader, then started all the Red Knights’ games for five seasons and signed to play for the Gophers.
“There was one game I almost missed,’’ Houlihan said. “We had a tournament on the day I was being confirmed. Our coach got the game moved back, and I went straight from the Basilica to the softball field.’’
Mike Houlihan, Maddie’s father, was asked Wednesday when the family took note that the oldest of their three kids had quite an aptitude for softball.
“One day when she was 9 or 10, and most of the kids were taking these half-swings and hitting dribblers,’’ he said. “All the parents were chit-chatting and not paying that much attention, and then Maddie took a swing and there was a loud sound when she made contact.
“It was a foul fly that went over the backstop, but everyone stopped and gave a ‘what-was-that’ look.”
Houlihan’s first season at Minnesota was 2016, and it was phenomenal. She batted .356, scored 51 runs, with 11 home runs and 46 RBI in 57 games. She batted .464 in conference games, was the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year.
“Being a freshman is great,’’ Maddie said. “Opponents don’t know you and you don’t know them. You just play. You just swing the bat.’’
Houlihan and her teammates were in the fieldhouse at the Gibson-Nagurski building on Wednesday. They had been driven inside by the afternoon monsoon. They will start play in the Big Ten tournament in Bloomington, Ind., on Friday, although there’s the usual rain in the forecast.
Then will come a spot in the NCAA tournament bracket and, no matter what happens there, Houlihan’s time in the Gophers lineup will conclude in less than a month.
“I’m taking it all in, even the little things,’’ she said. “If it rains this week, I’m going to enjoy that, because we’re the bad-weather Gophers.“We’ve gone through rain, cold, snow at the tournament. We started a game in the tournament at Penn State at about 10:30 at night. We love the Big Ten tournament — all of it.’’
As should be the case for the Gophers. They are three-time defending Big Ten tournament champions — with a 9-0 record. Meaning, Houlihan has never lost a Big Ten tournament game, while also collecting the award for most outstanding player last May in Madison, Wis.
The Gophers are 179-47 (.792) overall since Houlihan started her career with a double and home run against Utah Valley University on Feb. 12, 2016.
She has been a 5-5 first baseman, a utility player and, for the past two seasons, the right fielder. She has started 225 of the 226 games in this exceptional run of Gophers softball.
The one game she missed in the past nine seasons of high school and collegiate softball was on April 12, 2018, at Iowa City. On that day, the funeral was held in the Twin Cities for Maddie’s beloved paternal grandmother, Joyce Houlihan.
“The burial was the next day, and I planned to miss the second game at Iowa,’’ Maddie said. “My grandfather [Pat] said, ‘Your grandmother wouldn’t want that. She would want you to play.’
“So I flew to Iowa for the second game of that series, and my dad and grandfather drove down to see the end of the series.’’
The Gophers took what appeared to be a devastating hit to their chances for 2019 in December when junior slugger Kendyl Lindaman officially transferred to Florida.
Houlihan and Lindaman were roommates, and there were tears shed when a friend left, but the view from inside the team was much more optimistic than from outsiders after the loss of Lindaman as a record-breaking run producer.
“We had Natalie [DenHartog] as a freshman, and Hope [Brandner] as our own transfer, so we were optimistic that the power still would be there,’’ Houlihan said. “And it has been. The ball is still flying out of the park for us.
“Plus, the way Amber [Fiser] has been pitching the last few weeks … I’m so proud of her.
“We’ve had outstanding teams; a great team in 2017. But right now, the way we’ve come together, I think this is our best. I really do.’’