The Gophers softball team garnered tons of attention for its 56-win season and its disappointing finish last weekend after being controversially sent on the road for the NCAA regionals in Alabama. After she had a few days to reflect on the ups and downs of the year, coach Jessica Allister chatted with the Star Tribune’s Michael Rand:
Q It feels like this year got a lot of people talking about Gophers softball. Did you get the sense that you captured the attention of some casual sports fans?
A Yeah, I thought there was a lot of excitement around Gophers softball. We started to build it over the last couple years, but I do think this was the most support we’ve had from casual observers. It was a really fun year.
Q At what point do you transition from the disappointment of how it ended to reflecting on the great season and building on that?
A I think we’re going through all of those phases a little bit each day. I’d be lying if I said at this point that I’ve put it to bed and moved on. It was such a great group of young women. To see it end before we were ready to see it end was tough. But over the last few days, talking in our meetings, it’s really important that the players recognize what a great job they did. You hear a lot of people talk about how one game or weekend doesn’t define a season. I don’t know if there could be a more appropriate time for that quote. It would be foolish for us not to feel good about our season.
Q Not to dwell on the regional seeding, but all 16 teams that were seeded and hosted regionals ended up advancing in the NCAA tournament. You were so good on the road this year, but once you get to the tournament is there something about being on the road that is particularly difficult?
A There are built-in advantages to being at home that are hard to ignore. … There’s the familiarity of being at home. When you get to the postseason it’s all new and exciting again. You have nervous energy. The nervousness, in front of your home crowd, is easier to channel into excitement. In front of other crowds, I think it’s harder. Home-field advantage is a real thing.
Q You have plenty of talent coming back, but you lose some key pieces — none bigger than star pitcher Sara Groenewegen. How do you start to think about life without her?
A That’s the beauty of college athletics, right? They graduate. The longest anybody can compete for you is four years. You have to continue to bring new people in to stay at the level you want to. … Will we replace the role right away of a dominant ace like Sara was? No, but we don’t have to. We’ll work to be as well-rounded, balanced and fundamentally sound as we can be. I think we’ll develop into something special. I really do.
Q This year, or even in past years when you’ve been eliminated from the NCAA tournament, do you keep watching it?
A :It’s really hard to do it, but I can’t seem to stop. I watched [Thursday] night, Alabama shut out Florida. The pitcher we couldn’t score on, the No. 1 team in the country couldn’t sniff her either. It’s a tough game, and Alabama was a tough team. I love the sport, so I might as well watch it at the highest level.