OKLAHOMA CITY – The Gophers had more than 20 minutes to deal with the emotions of a 7-2 opening loss to UCLA on Thursday afternoon in the Women’s College World Series. Then, four of the players were summoned to join coach Jamie Trachsel for the formal media session required of winning and losing teams in this event.
There were expressions of optimism that this loss did not doom the Gophers in this double-elimination championship, and also moments of good humor. Some were provided by second baseman MaKenna Partain, when asked about the face plant she experienced rounding first base that turned a double into a single.
There were also big smiles from teammates — Partain, Amber Fiser and Natalie DenHartog — as a reporter from a hometown weekly quickly turned shortstop Allie Arneson into the focal point.
He was a large and enthused gent and wearing the official bib of a credentialed photographer, meaning double duty that’s familiar to hometown journalists, reporting and shooting photos.
He took a seat directly in front of his target, Arneson, and fired the first question: “Allie, on your hit, big hit, drove in a crucial run — were you looking for a certain pitch … [or] up there trying to stay alive?”
Arneson joined the wide smiles and said: “Yeah, with Rachel [Garcia], I was trying to stay alive,” referring to the Bruins ace. “But she did give me inside low. I do like that pitch, so it worked out.”
The reporter nodded his head, knowing darn well that Allie liked the ball down and low, from his years of covering her as an all-state shortstop for the Aledo [Texas] High School Ladycats.
“That’s Tony from the newspaper in Aledo,” Arneson said Friday. “He covers all the sports.”
That’s Tony Eierdem, sports editor of the Community News in Aledo. The website not only offered Tony’s crisp photo of Arneson’s RBI single in the sixth, and an eight-paragraph summary of the hometown hero’s first game at the WCWS, but also a promise that there will be complete coverage of her experience in Oklahoma City in the June 7 edition.
There are complaints to be heard about the spread of summer all-star teams in youth and high school-age sports, and showcase events for scouting.
Yet, if you look at the middle of the Gophers’ infield, there are vivid examples of the opportunity this can bring for small-town athletes to compete at a big-time level.
Partain comes from Banks, Ore., a town of 2,000 in a green valley east of Portland. Arneson comes from a smallish prairie town 20 miles west of Fort Worth.
“We’re close enough to Fort Worth to be growing,” Arneson said. “We might have a second high school soon.”
Arneson played summer competition in Texas with the Midlothian Storm Chasers and Team Mizuno. She also went to a pair of “Allister camps” in Boulder, Colo. The official title is OnDeck Softball, and it claims leadership in “events and [player] evaluations” for a quarter-century.
Joann Allister is the founder. Joann’s daughter, Jessica, was the coach who turned around the Gophers’ softball program before leaving for Stanford in July 2017.
So the Allister connection was how Arneson wound up at Minnesota in the fall of 2016?
“Not really. I went to Virginia, for the academics and to play softball,” Arneson said. “It’s a beautiful campus with great academics, but Virginia didn’t offer what I needed as a competitor in softball.
“I’m an amped-up person. Always have been. I needed a place dedicated to competing at a higher level.”
And when did Arneson know she had that at Minnesota?
“I was batting leadoff as a freshman at Virginia,” Arneson said. “I was batting ninth as a sophomore with the Gophers. That was a good indication.”
The upgrade in competition brought out the best in Arneson: She was first-team all-Big Ten as the shortstop in 2017.
Then she had minor knee surgery to go with a stress fracture in the femur during the offseason. She missed the first month of games in 2018 and wound up batting .200. She was batting seventh when this season started and has been sixth in the stretch run.
Arneson homered in the Big Ten tournament opener to provide the winning run vs. upset-minded Purdue. She dropped a two-run single into center field for the winning runs in a 5-3 victory over LSU in the super regional opener.
Over the past four postseason games, she has five hits and five RBI — including Thursday’s hit off Garcia, a two-time National Player of the Year.
“I’m seeing the ball really well,” Arneson said. “I don’t know if it has anything to do with it being almost time to take off this softball equipment for good, but my energy …
“It always has been high, but it’s at a different level, competing against the best. I’ve always wanted the chance to be doing this.”
And subscribers to the Aledo Community News will have a chance to read all about the final days of All-State Ladycat Allie Arneson’s quest in next week’s print edition.