By the time they reached Tuesday's home opener, the Gophers brought a long list of achievements to Jane Sage Cowles Stadium. They had set a school record with a 19-0 start, hit the 30-victory mark for the seventh consecutive season and reached No. 6 in the national rankings, the highest in program history.
As much as pitcher Sara Groenewegen appreciated all that, she noted it wouldn't have been possible without another accomplishment. "If you're going to travel for eight straight weeks, you'd better learn to like each other,'' she said, laughing. "This group has done a great job of not getting sick of each other.''
The camaraderie built through 33 consecutive road games — and a sense of fun that runs the length of the dugout — has powered the now-No. 7 Gophers to a start that surpassed their already grand expectations. In Tuesday's long-awaited home opener, they swept a doubleheader over South Dakota, winning 8-0 and 12-0 on a spring day as sparkling as their record.
A crowd announced at 762 saw the Gophers unveil some new twists, as well as the tried and true. Freshman catcher Kendyl Lindaman — perhaps the most dynamic rookie in the Big Ten — clubbed two home runs, including a three-run shot off the wall of the new indoor football practice facility being constructed behind left field. The Gophers' potent offense cranked out 20 hits, and pitcher Tori Finucane — a senior transfer from Missouri — threw a one-hitter and struck out nine in the first game.
Throughout the afternoon, the players stood in the sun at the front of their dugout, singing and chanting and cheering. That, Groenewegen said, is as much a driver of their 32-3 record as their depth, experience and talent.
"It's just been a really fun year, and with fun comes wins,'' said Groenewegen, a two-time All-America whose 91 career victories are second-most in school history. "Everything is coming together. Of my four years here, I think this is the best we've felt and the most fun we've had.
"We're all very lighthearted people. We like to laugh, and we like to joke. That always makes everyone play more free.''
The Gophers anticipated continued progress this season, after finishing last spring with a 43-14 record and their fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. It would, however, require some adjustments.
Nine newcomers were joining nine returnees on the roster. Coach Jessica Allister also was moving players around, prompted in part by the graduation of last season's entire starting outfield. Several players took on new roles, including Big Ten freshman of the year Maddie Houlihan, who moved from first base to the outfield.
Allister credited three seniors — Groenewegen, Finucane and outfielder Sam Macken — with anchoring the group as it adapted. During the two-month stretch of road games, each returning player roomed with a newcomer, which built familiarity and friendships.
The 19-0 start broke the program record for longest win streak (15). Ranked No. 16 when the season began, the Gophers cracked the nation's top 10 for the first time ever as their superb pitching was matched by a muscular offense. The Gophers entered Tuesday's games ranked sixth in the nation in team batting average (.342), 10th in earned-run average (1.47) and tied for sixth in scoring (seven runs per game).
Allister said she isn't surprised by the Gophers' strong start, but she is delighted by their ability to handle a variety of situations. The Gophers have three walk-off victories, one more than all of last season. They have won via pitching and defense, and with their bats.
"Since we started practice in the fall, I knew we had a really good team,'' said Allister, in her seventh season as head coach. "But it's impressive that we've found ways to win all those ballgames''
Groenewegen, who is 15-2 this season, is ranked third in Division I with an ERA of 0.50. Two rookies — Lindaman and MaKenna Partain — have combined to win six of the eight Big Ten freshman of the week honors this season. Lindaman has 13 home runs, only two short of the school record, and leads a lineup loaded with crafty, powerful hitters.
After all those weeks on the road, Tuesday's games began a stretch in which the Gophers will play 16 of 18 at home. They kept a crowd clad in short sleeves and sunglasses well-fed and well-clothed; with Cracker Jacks given out after home runs and T-shirts after strikeouts, few went home empty-handed.
That made for a fun day at the ballpark, in the stands and on the field.
"It's really exciting to finally be at home,'' Macken said. "We're a good road team, but we're ready to sleep in our own beds.''